May 3, 2006

US body criticizes religious freedom in allies

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. government commission warned
on Wednesday of rising religious persecution in Iraq and
Afghanistan, two countries invaded by the United States in the
past five years to free their people from tyranny and abuse.

The United States Commission on International Religious
Freedom, in its annual report to Congress and President George
W. Bush's administration, also harshly criticized three key
U.S. allies -- Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt -- for their
poor performance on religious rights.

The commission designated 11 countries as being "of
particular concern" because of extreme religious persecution:
Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Another seven states were placed on a watch list because of
serious violations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba,
Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

Created by Congress in 1998 to ensure that religious
freedom became a central goal of U.S. foreign policy, the
commission raised the alarm about the situation in Iran and

"The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq serve to underscore
the precarious state of this fundamental freedom," commission
chairman Michael Cromartie wrote to Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice in a letter accompanying the report.

In sending troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003,
Bush stated that one of his goals was to overthrow tyrannical
governments and restore basic human rights.

In Afghanistan, the report said, conditions for freedom of
religion of non-Muslims had become particularly problematic in
the past year, compounded by flaws in the new Afghan
constitution, which does not contain clear protections for
religious minorities.

"Religious extremism, even in official circles, is an
increasing threat to democratic consolidation in Afghanistan,"
the report said.


In Iraq, the commission was deeply concerned by sectarian
violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims and targeted attacks
on secular Muslims, religious minorities and women.

"There has been an ongoing stream of violence and extremism
in Iraq driven by religious intolerance," the report said.

The commission, an independent body appointed by the White
House and Congress, cannot mandate any specific action and its
past calls for steps to punish violators have been ignored.

However, last year the United States denied the export of
some defense items to Eritrea, the first action to be taken
against another country as a result of its designation by the
commission as a "country of particular concern."

On Saudi Arabia, the commission concluded that "freedom of
religion does not exist" as the government banned all forms of
religious expression except its own interpretation of Sunni
Islam and continued to finance "extreme religious intolerance
and hatred" around the world.

The commission criticized the Bush administration for
failing to punish Saudi Arabia for violations listed in last
year's report and urged it to take action this year.

China, a major U.S. trade partner, conducted "severe and
pervasive violations of religious freedom and related religious
rights," according to the report.

Iran's record deteriorated in the past year, the report
said, citing Iran's treatment of members of the Bahai faith and

The performance of Pakistan, an ally in the "war on
terror," improved its efforts to protect minorities but still
fell short, the report said.

In Egypt, "discrimination, intolerance and other human
rights violations affect a broad spectrum of religious groups,"
including Coptic Christians, Bahais, Jews and members of
minority Muslim communities.