A U.S. government report says religious freedoms in Iraq have sharply deteriorated because of the ongoing conflict in the country. The annual report on International Religious Freedom says the violence and rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has harmed the ability of all worshippers to practice their faiths.
The U.S. State Department says the violent insurgency in Iraq continues to harm the ability of all Iraqis to practice their faith. John Hanford is the State Department's ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom. He says,
"The real problem that we're dealing with is, with the sectarian violence, not necessarily focused upon religious practice, but at the same time, religious practice winds up being affected."
The report also outlines problems in non-Muslim countries. The State Department says there are credible reports of deaths in China due to "torture and abuse" involving practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual sect. Hanford also accuses Iran's government of severe religious discrimination.
"The [Iranian] regime is unrelenting in its repression of Bahai's, and has created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all non-Shia religious groups, including Sufi Muslims, some Christian groups and members of the Jewish community."
The report notes significant improvements in countries such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. The report comes just days after the sixth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says it emphasizes the need to combat the idealogy of hate and religious intolerance.
"As we reflect on the tragedy of that day, we are reminded of the true importance of this report and we reaffirm our commitment to help us shed light on all countries where citizens are subjected to government censorship, hate crimes, discrimination and violence for their thoughts and beliefs."
The report also comes as Muslims celebrate the start of the holy month of Ramadan, and Jews observe their high holy days. It also precedes the State Department's annual black list of countries the United States accuses of repression and plans to sanction. Iran headed last year's list, along with China, Eritrea, Burma and North Korea.
On Laos, Ambassador Hanford says Laos has made progress in respecting religious freedom, but that laws protecting this freedom are arbitrarily applied in some areas, creating scattered problems.
"I've traveled there, and we were pleased to see general progress in Laos. And I would say the situation is improved over what existed several years ago. The absence of rule of law has created problems, and there's somewhat of an arbitrary application of the law as well, particularly in certain regions, Savannakhet and Savannakhet province. There continue to be problems there. There are about 40 churches that remain closed, that were closed there. Although we're pleased that several of the closed churches had been opened this year, and so we point to that progress. There's also been pressure to force minority Christians to renounce their faith, and this is something that had largely ceased when I traveled there about three or four years ago. It's interesting. Laos and Vietnam were using the very same forms to force people to sign, renouncing their faith, so there was some cross-border cooperation going on there. At that point, Laos was in better shape on this practice than Vietnam. But in the case of Laos, this is cropping up again, and they've refused to register Methodists. So there continue to be scattered problems there."
Eight countries - China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan - were designated a "Countries of Particular Concern" by Secretary Rice late last year.
A revised list is expected to be issued in November based on the new report. The delay is intended to give countries facing the designation and possible U.S. sanctions an opportunity to undertake reforms.