Government Attacking Religious Freedom in ‘Nearly Half of the World’s Countries’

By Pete Winn | July 30, 2012 | 7:39 PM EDT

Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

( – Attacks on Christians are rising in Arab Spring countries, anti-Semitism is growing worldwide and people around the globe are paying with their lives for their religious beliefs, according to the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday at the State Department.

“(In) nearly half of the world’s countries, governments either abuse religious minorities or did not intervene in cases of societal abuse,” U.S. Ambassador-at-Large Suzan Johnson Cook said Monday at the State Department, announcing the report’s release.

Last August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named eight countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” when it comes to violations of human rights and religious freedom – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

In all of those countries, religious freedom deteriorated during the last year, according to the 2011 report.

In North Korea, “genuine religious freedom does not exist,” said Cook, the State Department official in charge of assessing international religious freedom.

Religious freedom in Iran, she said, has “deteriorated from an already horrible situation.”

“In Iran, Pastor Nadarkhani faces a death sentence just for his faith,” which is Christianity. Nadarkhani has already been held in prison for more than 1,000 days for converting from Islam.

Cook said the Iranian government continues to detain over 100 Baha’i, including seven Baha’i leaders sentenced for spying for Israel, and the government extended the original 20-year penalty.

Cook said other countries, especially in the Muslim world, are “increasingly using blasphemy and apostasy and dissent laws to curb religious freedom.”

In Saudi Arabia, the ambassador noted, “blasphemy against the Wahabi – the interpretation of Sunni Islam – continues to be punishable by death.”

“This February, a young blogger Hamza Kashgari, was arrested for questioning his faith on Twitter, and he still remains in jail without charge,” Cook told reporters.

In Pakistan, authorities continue to invoke “these abusive laws where hundreds of Muslims and non-Muslims were convicted of blasphemy.”

“Asia Bibi, a Christian, remains in prison awaiting an appeal of her 2010 death sentence for blasphemy,” the ambassador said. “Some of those who publicly criticize the blasphemy laws have already paid in their lives.”

She cited the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and the former Minister of Ministry Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, as examples of two assassinated leaders who “already paid with their lives.”

In Egypt, the State Department found that the former regime had “routinely discriminated against religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians and Baha’is,” and had failed the curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and their places of worship.

“These patterns have continued during the post-revolutionary transition,” the State Department official noted.

“Last October, security forces attacked demonstrators in front of the Egyptian radio and television stations in Cairo. Twenty-five people were killed and hundreds were injured, most of whom were Coptic Christians. And, to date, no government official has been held accountable in this attack.”

In a number of countries, individuals were detained or imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, according to the ambassador.

China leads the list.

“China restricted the practices of many groups, including unregistered Christian churches, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners,” the ambassador said. “The self-immolation of over 40 Tibetans to protest Chinese policies continue to demonstrate their desperation.”

Some countries – namely Russia and Uzbekistan – “invoked national security as a pretext for restricting the rights of some peaceful religious groups,” she said

The 2011 report also documents a global rise in anti-Semitism, which Cook said was evidenced by attacks on adults and children and the desecration of cemeteries.

Anti-Semitism, the ambassador explained, showed up in the form of “Holocaust denial, glorification, and relativism; conflating opposition to certain policies of Israel with blatant anti-Semitism; growing nationalistic movements that target ‘the other;’ and traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as conspiracy theories, acts of desecration and assault, ‘blood libel,’ and cartoons demonizing Jews.”

In Venezuela, the official media published numerous anti-Semitic statements, the ambassador noted, and in Egypt, anti-Israel sentiment in the media was widespread and sometimes included anti-Semitic rhetoric and Holocaust denial or glorification.

In Iraq, the State Department said, Web sites promoting Holocaust denial “operated with Iran's consent.”

In France, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. Hungary saw the rise in popularity of an openly anti-Semitic party, the Jobbik party. Jewish property was defaced in Ukraine, including a synagogue and several Holocaust monuments. In both Ukraine and the Netherlands, soccer matches were marred by anti-Semitic slogans.

The ambassador-at-large said many governments used registration laws to restrict the rights of religious communities.

In Burma, Belarus, and in other countries, governments routinely misuse laws to restrict freedom of religion, expression and assembly. Unregistered groups were frequently unable to gather for worship or practice their religion at all.