Nov 17 (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday unveiled its annual survey of religious freedom, citing countries ranging from North Korea to Eritrea as repressing religious liberties.
Following are some of the conclusions from the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report on eight countries previously named as areas of “special concern” over their limits on religious freedom.
The report said Myanmar’s military rulers ignored constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political liberties.
The government actively promoted Theravada Buddhism, especially among minority groups, and pressured students and poor youth to convert, it said.
“Christian and Islamic groups continued to struggle to obtain permission to repair places of worship or build new ones,” the report said, adding that the Muslim Rohingya minority experienced severe legal and economic discrimination, resulting in many Rohingya refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.
The report said China’s communist government increased repression in the Xinjiang during the year following a crack-down on unrest among the region’s Muslim Uighurs in July 2009. It also said that religious repression remained severe in Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, while controls on religious groups in other parts of the country were tightened during “sensitive periods” such as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
It noted, however, some positive developments which suggest the growth of traditional Chinese religions, such as Chinese Buddhism, and that official media had published articles discussing religious freedom.
North Korea, often cited as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights, is also a harsh opponent of religious liberty, the report said.
“There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the government during the reporting period, and government policy continued to interfere with the individual’s ability to choose and to manifest his or her religious belief,” it said.
The report noted that government controls in the isolated country made it difficult to verify individual cases, but that defector reports indicated that the government had increased its investigation, repression and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years.
It said an estimated 150,000-200,000 people were believed to be held in North Korean re-education camps, some of them for religious reasons.
Respect for religious freedom in the Islamic republic deteriorated and government-controlled media intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities, particularly the Baha‘is, the report said.
Baha‘i religious groups reported arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention, expulsion from universities and confiscation of property.
It noted that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “continued a virulent anti-Semitic campaign, questioning the existence and scope of the Holocaust,” and said Sufi Muslims were also subject to increased repression.
“Laws based on religious affiliation continued to be used to stifle freedom of expression and association, including through imprisonment of public figures,” it said.
U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Islam is the official religion, neither recognizes nor protects freedom of religion but guarantees the right for all -- including non-Muslims -- to worship in private.
While overall restrictions on religious activity remained, the report said there were incremental improvements during the reporting period which included “selective measures to combat extremist ideology” particularly in school textbooks.
Sudan’s constitution allows for freedom of religion throughout the country. But in practice Islam is favored in the Muslim-dominated north of the country while the semi-independent South Sudan has generally free practice of religion, the report said.
The report said that, unlike the previous reporting period, some Christian churches in the north were able to hold regular religious services and holiday celebrations.
The central Asian nation restricts many rights only to registered religious groups, imposing criminal penalties on activities such as proselytizing and disseminating religious literature, and overall respect for religious freedom declined, the report said.
“The government’s campaign against members of unregistered religious groups continued; alleged members were arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms,” it said.
The horn of Africa nation, with a population split among various Muslim and Christian groups, has not yet implemented a 1997 constitution providing for religious freedom and resisted efforts by U.S. diplomats to address the issue, the report said.
reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Cynthia Osterman