Religious freedom in decline, report says

Tension: Europe, Arabs criticized for intolerance

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 31, 2012 

WASHINGTON – From pork rinds sprinkled on Muslim graves in France to a Christian pastor’s death sentence for apostasy in Iran, religious minorities were targeted across the globe in 2011, according to a U.S. government report on religious freedom.

The State Department’s annual compilation, released Monday, highlighted a few narrow openings in unlikely places – transitional Libya and closed-off Myanmar, for example – but it also criticized some U.S. allies for backsliding when it came to protecting the freedom to worship.

Europe in particular was chided for failing to keep pace with its growing ethnic and religious diversity. The report notes that demographic change is sometimes accompanied by “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’”

Belgium and France passed laws restricting dress that “adversely affected Muslims,” while Hungary introduced changes making it so difficult to register religious organizations that the number of recognized religious groups plummeted from more than 300 to fewer than 32.

“Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington. “Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom. So … this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”

Religious freedom also was a fraught subject in the so-called Arab Spring rebellions, the waves of popular protests that unseated four Middle Eastern rulers and plunged the region into a complicated transition ostensibly toward more democratic rule. But many of the uprisings and transitions have taken on sectarian undertones, a trend now evident in the 16-month-old Syrian revolt.

In Syria, the report found, the regime of President Bashar Assad “targeted and destroyed churches and mosques across the country” in the early waves of protests. The investigators blamed the regime for propaganda that painted the protesters as “extreme Islamist factions” and also chided the protesters for conflating regime violence with perceived offenses by the Alawite minority, the sect of Assad and his top cronies.

“This led to an increase of tension, violence and killing between largely Alawite and Sunni communities,” the report said. “Some Christians, Druze and opposition members also suffered at the hands of the regime. As the violence grew, members of minority religious communities were increasingly vulnerable.”

In Bahrain, where neighboring Sunni Muslim bulwark Saudi Arabia sent troops to crush a mainly Shiite rebellion, the government arrested and detained protesters, “the vast majority” of them Shiites. The report also noted the destruction of 53 religious structures, mostly Shiite places of worship, in the unrest.

Meanwhile, revolutionary Egypt has “failed to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians,” the report found, noting that no government officials were held responsible for an attack on protesters that left at least 25 people dead and more than 300 injured, most of them Copts.

The surprise bright spot was Libya. The report praised the interim government for ending Moammar Gadhafi-era laws restricting religious freedom and for including the free practice of religion in a draft constitution. In early 2012, the report continued, the Libyan Supreme Court also overturned a law that criminalized “insults against Islam, the state, and religious symbols.”

“They’re in transitions that are important, but we’re looking to them to honor what they said they would do,” Suzan Johnson Cook, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said of the Middle East’s revolutionaries.

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