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International Religious Freedom

ICC Note:

U.S. Religious Freedom Report singles out Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq as among the top violators of religious freedom in the Middle East.

By Father John Flynn, LC

11/9/2009 Middle East ( – Almost completely ignored by the media, the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual report on religious freedom on Oct. 26. The 2009 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom deals with the year ending June 30, 2009, and surveys 198 countries and territories.

Before going into the details on each country, the report’s introduction explains why the United States’ government considers it important to defend religious freedom.

“Religious freedom is the birthright of all people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof,” it asserts.

The introduction also brings into play the concept of the common good. “On balance, freedom tends to channel the convictions and passions of faith into acts of service and positive engagement in the public square,” the text affirms.

From a more political perspective the State Department argues that when religious groups and ideas are suppressed then this tends to lead to their radicalization, which in turn can foment separatism or insurgency.

On the international level the report argues that if governments manipulate religion or marginalize groups, then this only helps radical groups that will in turn be a threat to global security.

“Environments of robust religious freedom, on the other hand, foster communal harmony and embolden voices of moderation to openly refute extremists on religious grounds,” the introduction concludes.


A section of the report deals with those countries where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy. Among those is Afghanistan. The report notes how the Constitution states that Islam is the “religion of the state” and that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”

The State Department commented that non-Muslim minority groups, including Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, continued to face incidents of discrimination and persecution. Another problem is that of conversion. Many citizens, the report noted, understand conversion as contravening the tenets of Islam and Shariah.

In Egypt the report observed that, while the Constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, in practice the government places restrictions on these rights. In fact, respect for religious freedom by the authorities declined somewhat during the reporting period, according to the State Department.

This was mainly due to the failure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence. This practice, the report added, contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged repetition of the assaults.

Christians and members of the Baha’i faith face personal and collective discrimination in many areas, the report affirmed. One example given was that of a court that sentenced a Coptic priest to five years of hard labor for officiating at a wedding between a Copt and a convert from Islam who allegedly presented false identification documentation.

Iran and Iraq were both singled out by the report as problematic countries when it comes to religious freedom. In the former it noted that despite constitutional guarantees, in practice those who are not Shi’a Muslims faced substantial discrimination.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was also mentioned, due to his “virulent anti-Semitic campaign,” which included questioning the existence and scope of the Holocaust.

As well, the government enforced its prohibition on proselytizing by some Christian groups by closely monitoring their activities, closing some churches, and arresting Christian converts.

In Iraq the existence of constitutional guarantees was vitiated by violence from terrorists and criminal gangs that restricted the free exercise of religion and posed a significant threat to the country’s vulnerable religious minorities, the report stated.

“Very few of the perpetrators of violence committed against Christians and other religious minorities in the country have been punished,” the State Department noted.


In a press release issued the same day as the report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged “the prompt designation of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) as well as implementation of targeted policies on those countries.”

USCIRF explained that it wants 13 countries — Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam — to be designated as CPCs.

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