By Elise Labott
Efforts to transition from dictatorship to democracy after the Arab Spring have endangered religious minorities, the State Department says in its annual report of religious freedom.
The annual survey of religious liberties around the world also warns against deteriorating religious freedom in China and Iran, the increased use of anti-blasphemy laws to restrict the rights of religious minorities and a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe
"In times of transition, the situation of religious minorities in these societies comes to the forefront," says the State Department's first report since the Arab Spring uprisings. "Some members of society who have long been oppressed seek greater freedom and respect for their rights while others fear change. Those differing aspirations can exacerbate existing tension."
While the report notes Egypt's interim military leaders had made gestures towards greater inclusiveness, it points to an uptick in sectarian tensions and violence in Egypt, particularly against Coptic Christians.
It denounces the interim Egyptian government's "failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks," including one instance in which Egyptian security forces attacked demonstrators, killing 25 people injuring 350, most of whom were Coptic Christians.
"On other occasions, through inaction, the government failed to prevent violence against Christians or stop the destruction of churches and religious minority-owned property," the report says. "Authorities also failed to investigate effectively and prosecute crimes against Christians."
In a speech extolling the virtues of protecting religious freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the country's new president, Mohamed Morsy, to make good on his promises to respect the rights of all Egyptians. The secretary visited Egypt earlier this month, meeting with Morsy as well as with Christian leaders worried about life under Egypt's new Islamic leadership.
"I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous" in Egypt, Clinton said. "I don't know that this is going to be quickly resolved."
Clinton warned an inconsistent effort by the government to investigate the perpetrators of sectarian violence sends a dangerous message that there are no consequences for such crimes.
"That's the kind of recipe that can quickly get out of control ... and undermine the new democracy," Clinton said.
In an address to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Clinton said religious freedom is "not just about religion," but also "about the right of people to think what they want, and say what they think, and come together in fellowship, without the state looking over their shoulder.
"These rights give our lives meaning and dignity, whatever religion we belong to - or if we belong to no religion at all," Clinton said. "Like all human rights, they are our birthright. They not granted to us by any government. Rather, it is the responsibility of governments to protect them."
In its report, the State Department once again criticizes Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, North Korea and Iran as chronic violators of particular concern. The report says North Korea permitted no religious freedom at all and warns that religious freedom in Iran "deteriorated further from an already egregious situation." It cites the restoration of 20-year sentences in Iran for seven Bahais charged with spying for and collaborating with Israel as well as the imprisonment of Yousof Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor sentenced to death for apostasy
Blasphemy and religious defamation laws are also highlighted in the report, which cites Pakistan for issuing death sentences for blasphemy and Afghan courts for interpreting Islamic law to punish non-Muslims for exercising their faith.
In China, the report says, there was "a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government's respect for and protection of religious freedom," citing greater restrictions on religious practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.
"Official interference in the practice of these religious traditions exacerbated grievances and contributed to at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans in 2011," the report says. It also criticizes China's "severe" repression of Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang.
Myanmar's reformist government took steps to overcome intense religious oppression, easing restrictions on church construction and allowing registered groups to worship, but the report says authorities continued monitoring religious activities.
The report also warns of alarming trends in Europe, where nations undergoing major demographic changes are witnessing "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered 'the other.'"
It points to a "rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others," referring to bans on veils worn by Mulish women.
It also warns of a global rise in anti-Semitism, citing the desecration of Jewish synagogues in France and Ukraine, anti-Semitic statements in Venezuela and the Netherlands, and the rise of an anti-Semitic party in Hungary.
Government efforts against "violent extremists" also come under scrutiny. The report criticizes Russia, Iraq and Nigeria for cracking down on peaceful religious practice under the guise of fighting terrorism.
In Bahrain, where government forces crushed mass protests calling for political reform, the report says there was "deterioration in the respect for and protection of religious freedom, including mass arrests and detentions of members of the Shia community and the destruction of Shia religious sites and gathering places."
The government blamed the uprising on Shia extremists.
The report cites "documented cases of arbitrary arrest, excessive use of force, and detainee torture and mistreatment" while a state of "national safety law" was implemented by royal decree under constitutional authority. It adds that government demolished a number of Shia religious sites and structures during the year.
The report finds some actions to commend as well. Turkey issued a decree facilitating the return of property confiscated from religious groups in the past. In Libya, the Supreme Court overturned a law that criminalized insults against Islam, and the new government chose not to enforce some old laws that limit religious freedom, the report says.