Bahai News - Report paints grim picture of global religious freedom Wednesday, September 6 2000 01:24    : 6 Elul 5760

Report paints grim picture of global religious freedom

By Marilyn Henry

NEW YORK (September 6) - Israel showed some improvements in religious liberty in the last year, the State Department said yesterday in its second annual Report on International Religious Freedom. However, the overall picture for religious freedom in 194 countries was called grim, and special note was made of the "threatening atmosphere" confronting the Jewish community in Iran.

"The sad truth is that religious intolerance remains far too common in too many places," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters at a briefing in New York.

Albright said religious freedom is a human rights issue that is a central aspect of the American foreign policy. While acknowledging that each nation has a unique political and legal system, Albright said that no country's history or culture can exempt it from the need to ensure religious freedom.

There were "significant improvements" in religious freedom in Azerbaijan and Laos, the report said.

However, there was a marked deterioration in China, where Christians were at risk, and in Myanmar, where Buddhist monks who promoted human rights were jailed. In Iran, the government continued to abuse religious rights, the report said, making special note of the harassment of members of the Bahai faith.

It also cited the trial and imprisonment of the 10 Jews on charges of spying for Israel, saying that "the Revolutionary Court deprived the accused of almost all legitimate means of defense, and its conduct worsened societal attitudes toward the Jewish community."

Further, it said that the government's anti-Israel policies, "coupled with a perception among radicalized Moslem elements that Jewish citizens support Zionism and the State of Israel, create a threatening atmosphere for the small Jewish community."

"Millions of people around the world continue to suffer for what they believe and how they worship," said Robert Seiple, the American ambassador at large for religious freedom.

In its section on Israel, the State Department noted that Israeli law provides for freedom of worship. However, it noted: "The overwhelming majority of non-Jewish citizens are Arabs and they are subject to various forms of discrimination. It is not clear that whatever discrepancies exist in the treatment of various communities in Israeli society are based on religion per se."

It cited proportionately greater financial support to religious and civic institutions in the Jewish sector, against the aid for non-Jewish institutions.

The department commended as an "area of improvement" last March's ruling by the Supreme Court that challenged the allocation of land by the Jewish National Fund since JNF barred the sale or lease of land to non-Jews.

The report also noted the May court ruling that would permit women to pray at the Western Wall, and that the Knesset had not yet overturned that ruling.

However, the department reported that relations between and within religious groups are strained. Among the Jewish population, the report cited the exclusive control by Orthodox authorities of marriage, divorce and burial, and the problems this has created for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The report also noted verbal and physical harassment by the Orthodox of some Jews for "immodest dress," and it referred to Jewish women who cannot obtain a religious divorce. "Consequently, there are hundreds of so-called 'agunot' in the country who cannot remarry or have legitimate children," the report said.

Copies of the complete report were not available at press time, and it was unclear how the State Department assessed religious freedom in areas under Palestinian Authority control.

©Copyright 2000, The Jerusalem Post

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