The State Department cited Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for denying religious freedom to non-Muslims and found fault to a lesser degree with other allies including Israel, Belgium, France, Germany and Pakistan.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be going to Saudi Arabia at the end of the week as part of a trip to the Middle East, released the report.
“In far too many countries, governments fail to safeguard religious freedom,” Rice said in releasing the survey of 197 countries and territories.
The same eight countries found to be of “particular concern” last year were cited again on Tuesday. They are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
Rice said if Vietnam continues to improve its record it could be removed from the list next time, however.
“Freedom of religion does not exist” in Saudi Arabia, the report said. “Islam is the official religion and all citizens must be Muslims.”
In Israel, the report said, some non-Jews, primarily Arab Muslims and Christians, experience discrimination in education, housing and employment.
“Tensions between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians remained high due to the institutional, legal and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens,” the seventh annual report to Congress said.
In France, where mayhem is sweeping impoverished neighborhoods with large African and Arab communities, and in Belgium and Germany, the State Department mildly criticized the branding of certain religions as dangerous cults and sects.
Pakistan was faulted for discriminatory legislation and failing to intervene in cases of violence against minority religious groups.
The citation of Saudi Arabia for not recognizing religious freedom and denying it to all but those who adhere to the state-sanctioned version of Sunni Islam could be an irritant during Rice’s visit to the Arab kingdom.
In September, she postponed punishing the Saudis with trade or other restrictions by giving the country’s rulers 180 days to show progress in the treatment of religious minorities.
While criticizing the Saudi government at a news conference Tuesday, John Hanford, who heads the State Department’s religious freedom office, said, “We are pleased that hundreds of thousands of people are permitted to practice their religion privately.”
Burma was accused of severe violations of religious freedom. China was faulted for showing insufficient respect for freedom of religion, Cuba for controlling and monitoring religious activities, and North Korea for not permitting religious freedom at all.
Listed as hostile toward minority or nonapproved religions were Eritrea, Iran, Laos, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, as well as Saudi Arabia.
The State Department said that in Iran, Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Jews and Christians reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation and discrimination based on religious belief.
Religious freedom declined in Uzbekistan while there was some improvement in respect for religious freedom in Vietnam and Egypt, the report said.
Hanford said Uzbekistan uses its law on religion against both Muslims and Christians.
In thousands of cases, he said, the government has accused people of encouraging terrorism simply because they expressed their devout Muslim beliefs.
And, Hanford said, the government has made false assertions of membership in extremist organizations as a pretext for repressing the innocent expression of religious belief.
– waging illegal warfare based on lies and deception,
– violating international laws and treaties, particularly concerning the treatment of prisoners of war,
– the promotion and use of torture, and
– the promotion and use of the death penalty.
Still, in Egypt, discrimination against non-Muslims continued and in India the government responded slowly to counterattacks against religious minorities, according to the report.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said his human rights subcommittee would hold a hearing on the report next Tuesday.
“By forthrightly naming the countries that systematically and egregiously violate the right to religious freedom, no matter friend or foe, we can begin to develop solutions that will guarantee the right to religious freedom to all people,” he said.
On Vietnam, where the State Department found improvements, Smith disagreed, particularly on the way the government treated Montagnard Christians.
The religious situation has deteriorated, he said, and the arrest and sentencing of Vo Vanh Thanh Liem (Nam Liem), a leading figure of the independent Hoa Hao Buddhists, was an outrage.