Bahai News - U.S. to World: Practice What We Preach on Religion Tuesday September 5     2:40 PM ET

U.S. to World: Practice What We Preach on Religion

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday told the world to heed its founding fathers who saw religious freedom as a key to democracy, blasting China, Sudan and Afghanistan among others it found guilty of restricting expression of faith.

In its second report on how free people are to practice their beliefs in 194 states, the State Department also rebuked some of its allies including Saudi Arabia, Germany and France.

Beijing's crackdown on Falun Gong spiritual practitioners provoked some of the harshest criticism in the report, mandated by Congress under a 1998 law which gave the U.S. government a variety of punishment options, including sanctions.

Last year the U.S. government chose not to impose additional sanctions on countries it designated as being of particular concern for their religious tolerance -- China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan.

This year U.S. officials say they do not expect any significant change in that list, which last year was announced about a month after the religious freedom report.

Afghanistan's ``ultraconservative'' Taliban leadership severely restricted religious freedom, the report said.

In Sudan, the government treated Islam as a state religion and restricted non-Muslims. Khartoum and its allies conducted indiscriminate bombings and other abuses in a civil war with rebels in the mainly Christian or animist south, it said.

In Iran, Baha'is, Jews, Christians and Sufi Muslims reported imprisonment and other acts of harassment. Conversion from Islam could be punishable by death, the report said.

In Iraq, where the Sunni Arabs minority dominates over the Shia'a Arab majority, the report cited several incidents in 1999 of security forces killing and injuring congregants protesting closures of Shi'a mosques.

Rulers of Myanmar, or Burma as it was known before a military coup and is still known by the U.S. government, presided over laws which allowed for restrictions on religious freedom. Authorities repressed efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, it added.

U.S. Preaches Religious Freedom As Key To Democracy

Citing the United States as an example of how religions should be allowed to flourish, the report said: ``Today, at the dawn of the third millennium, religions are flourishing in the United States, their respective traditions enriching not only their own adherents, but American public policy as well.''

Religious freedom was the first one listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights -- ``a reflection of the founders' belief that freedom of religion and conscience is the cornerstone of liberty'' as the report put it.

Some of the hundreds of pages of text concentrated on states the U.S. government says do not fulfill a covenant signed by 144 nations acknowledging the right to ``have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice''.

It accused Germany of encouraging discrimination against members of the Church of Scientology, which enjoys tax-free status in the United States.

Some German officials believed Scientology was a money-making scheme rather than a religion and government procedures sometimes screened out its members, it said.

In France, a 1996 law labeling 173 groups as sects included organizations which were ``merely unfamiliar or unpopular,'' some of whose members continued to allege discrimination, it added.

The U.S. government did not analyze how religious freedom was respected at home, though it acknowledged followers of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and indigenous American religions had been persecuted in the past.

In February, a French government mission accused Washington of being too lax on cults and unfairly blaming France for its harsher stance.

©Copyright 2000, Reuters

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