By Carol Giacomo, Reuters, 09/10/99
WASHINGTON - The United States released its first annual report on religious freedom worldwide yesterday, concluding that many of the world's people live in countries where religious freedoms are restricted.
Many of the countries faulted, including China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, regularly show up on the annual US list of overall human rights abusers.
But the new report also found that some US allies, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, were intolerant.
''Freedom of religion does not exist'' in Saudi Arabia, the report determined, in an unusually blunt and sweeping finding.
Although 144 countries are parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ''there remains in some countries a substantial difference between promise and practice,'' said the report, covering the period from January 1998 to June 1999 and written by the State Department.
''Much of the world's population lives in countries in which the right to religious freedom is restricted or prohibited,'' it concluded.
Many nations claim cultural and historical factors for religious intolerance, but ''at the end of the day there is no good reason for governments to violate religious freedom,'' Robert Seiple, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said at a news briefing.
The report, based in part on an 18-page questionnaire completed by all US overseas missions, was mandated by Congress and authorizes sanctions against violators of religious freedom. But Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had made no decisions about sanctions or other next steps, officials said.
Religious freedom in the United States was not addressed. Seiple said the United States has ''imperfections'' but was not the focus of this assessment.
China is cited for persecuting Tibetan Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs, and Protestant and Roman Catholics who do not belong to ''official'' churches.
In Afghanistan, religious freedom is severely restricted, and the dominant Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group that controls most of the country, persecutes and kills minority Shi'as, the report said.
In Saudi Arabia, where the government supports the Sunni Muslim majority, members of the Shi'a Muslim minority ''are the objects of officially sanctioned political and economic discrimination,'' the report said, citing instances of arbitrary detention and travel restrictions, among other practices.
In China, the report noted that the constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, but in practice the government ''seeks to restrict religious practice to government-sanctioned organizations and registered places of worship and to control the growth and scope of religious groups.''
In Pakistan, the report said ''discriminatory'' legislation has encouraged an atmosphere of religious intolerance, leading to acts of violence by extremists against members of religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Zikris.
India initially played down a sharp upswing in violence by extremists against religious minorities and their places of worship, and the response by state and local prosecutors to these events was ''often inadequate,'' the report said.
Iran was faulted for trying to ''eradicate'' the Baha'i faith while Iraq was criticized for actions against the Shiite Muslims.
This story ran on page A8 of the Boston Globe on 09/10/99
Page last revised 091099