US calls for greater religious freedom in Egypt, other Mideast states

Bassem Aly, Saturday 4 Aug 2012

Religious extremism and weak governments are the major threats to religious freedoms across the world, claims a recently-issued US government report

Egyptian Christian women grieve during a mass funeral for victims of sectarian clashes with soldiers and riot police at a protest against an attack on a church in southern Egypt(Photo:Reuters)
Egypt is among the nations failing to adequately protect the religious freedoms of all its citizens, the US State Department said this week.
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based research centre, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited the findings of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.
Issued by the US State Department, the annual document monitors religious freedoms in 199 countries and territories
The report claims such freedoms around the world are under attack from "religious extremists" who consider any deviation from their own beliefs as adequate justification for violence. 
It also points to governments which it says are failing to safeguard the rights of citizens. 
The report names Egypt, Bahrain, Nigeria, Iraq, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and China as the countries where religious freedoms are under the greatest threat.
In the case of Egypt, the report mentions steps taken by the country's post-uprising interim governments to promote "greater inclusiveness". 
It hails the passing of an anti-discrimination law, the prosecution of alleged instigators of sectarian violence and the reopening of dozens of churches forcibly closed during the Mubarak era.
Nevertheless, it notes that sectarian tensions and violence increased during the year in line with a general overall rise in violent crime.
The report also documents both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its seeming involvement in violent attacks, such as in October when security forces attacked demonstrators in front of Cairo's state radio and television building .
Libya gets mixed marks too. 
The report notes that after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) chose not to enforce several older laws that restricted religious freedom and enshrined the free practice of religion in an interim constitution. The country's Supreme Court earlier overturned a law that criminalised insults against Islam, the state, and religious symbols.
But it noted that the NTC was repeatedly stressed that Islamic precepts  be the main source of future law, as the Libyan people "are attached to Islam as religion and legislation'.
In the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, the report claims that religious tensions resulted in violence between a Sunni ruling minority and a Shia community seeking a greater sociopolitical role. 
The regime forces arrested and detained Shia protesters, the report says, based on a state of emergency.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry received reports that 53 religious had been demolished, mainly during the ongoing unrest, and recommended the government embark on rebuilding.
In March 2011, Saudi Arabia led a Gulf military force into Bahrain that largely crushed the nascent uprising. Riyadh disregarded its previous non-interference policy amid seeming fears over the growing influence of Iran in its tiny neighbour.
Saudi Arabia itself witnessed demonstrations by its own Shia minority, which regime forces quickly quashed before they could threaten its monarchical regime.
Iran, too, had its share of religious disruptions.
"Government imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on religious beliefs continued during the year," the report says.
It cites the exampe of Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who remains in jail, facing possible execution for practicing his faith. 
The government is also said to have arrested seven citizens in 2009 for "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic Republic."
The report accuses the government of creating a "threatening atmosphere" for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, most notably for the Baha’is, as well as for Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Sunni, and Zoroastrians.
Even Shia citizens who do not share the government’s official religious views face harassment and intimidation, the report says.
Beyond the Middle East: Myanmar, China and Nigeria
The report shows problems of religious freedom are not limited to the Middle East and North Africa. Myanmar, China, and Nigeria have seem similar sectarian tensions.
It points to Nigeria's Boko Haram as "violent extremists" who have attacked both Muslims and Christians. But it also says the government has been unable to quell rising hostilities nor investigate and prosecute the elements responsible for violence.
When it comes to Myanmar-- which the report calls Burma, in a legacy of British colonialism -- the report says the government has eased restrictions on church-building and was overcoming a longstanding trend of "intense religious oppression." 
But it said that the problems faced by the Muslim Rohingya minorities remain deeply unresolved.
Earlier in 2012, clashes between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya left dozens dead and tens of thousands homeless.
Hundreds of people, mostly men and boys, have been detained in security force sweeps of areas heavily populated by the Rohingya. Almost all captured are held incommunicado and some are ill-treated.
Most arrests appear to have been "arbitrary and discriminatory" while numerous media have reported "credible reports" of abuses -- including rape, destruction of property and unlawful killings -- perpetrated both by Rakhine Buddhists and security forces.
Decades of discrimination have left the Rohingya stateless, and they are viewed by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.
A similar scenario is also described in China where the government continues its repression of Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and other parts of the country. 
Crackdowns on Christian house churches, such as the Shouwang church in Beijing, also continued. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are required to be atheists and are generally discouraged from participating in religious activities.
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