4 Min Read
* Report cites moves by France, Switzerland
* Worst offenders include North Korea, Iran, China
* Overall global picture described as mixed
By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON, Nov 17 (Reuters) - The United States voiced concern on Wednesday over deteriorating religious freedoms in many parts of the world, including several European countries where "harsh measures" limiting religious expression have been put in place.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled the latest State Department report on global religious freedom, which rates countries around the world.
"Religious freedom is both a fundamental human right and an essential element to any stable, peaceful, thriving society," Clinton told a news conference
The report cited North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, China, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan among the worst offenders, repeating criticisms the United States makes almost every year.
But it also took note of countries such as France and Switzerland where voters and lawmakers have passed laws forbidding Muslim face veils and new mosque minarets.
"Several European countries have placed harsh restrictions on religious expression," Clinton said, saying the "persistent harm caused by intolerance and mistrust" could be as damaging to religious freedom as the actions of authoritarian governments or extremist groups.
Michael Posner, the State Department's top official for democracy and human rights, said the overall picture for world religious freedom was mixed, with increased repression in countries such as Iran and Myanmar balanced against improvements in nations such as Indonesia.
He said U.S. officials were worried by rising religious tensions in Europe and were urging European governments to protect the rights of Muslims and other religious minorities amid growing public concern over Islam in Europe.
"There's certainly a growing sensitivity and tension in Europe," Posner said. "(What) we are urging again our European friends to do is to take every measure to alleviate that tension."
Posner said the U.S. officials had specifically spoken to the counterparts in Switzerland, where voters last year decided to ban minarets, and France, where lawmakers voted in July to ban full-length "burqa" veils in public places.
The annual U.S. report, compiled from sources including journalists, academics, non-governmental organizations, and human rights and religious groups, provides a long list of both setbacks and progress on religious freedom around the world.
The report detailed how religious repression is the norm in many countries.
North Korea, which U.S. officials believe has between 150,000 and 200,000 people in political prison camps, some for religious reasons, has been on the U.S. list since 2001.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the first a foe and the second an ally of the United States, were both criticized for extremely repressive religious attitudes, while China was cited for continued repression in Tibet of followers of the Dalai Lama and in the western region of Xinjiang, which saw a wave of violence in July after a crackdown on protests by traditionally Muslim Uighurs. (Editing by Cynthia Osterman)