US commission on religious freedoms wants Egypt on blacklist

Washington — A US commission called Thursday for Egypt to be put on a blacklist for lack of religious freedom, saying attacks on Coptic Christians and other minorities have worsened despite political changes.

In an annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom voiced concern about what it saw as serious violations in a number of nations including China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

The commission, an autonomous advisory board, added Egypt to its recommended list of "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom, a designation that can carry economic sanctions unless governments address the US concerns.

But the State Department has ultimate authority to put nations on the list and, to the commission's chagrin, President Barack Obama has not designated any additional countries of particular concern since taking office in 2009.

Leonard Leo, the chair of the commission, said that Egypt experienced "severe religious freedom violations" both before and after the mass protests that forced out longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.

"Not everything in Egypt has changed. Violence against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities continues unabated without the government bringing the perpetrators to justice," Leo said.

Christians, who make up 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, have been the target of several recent attacks and repeatedly accused authorities of systematic discrimination.

In Alexandria, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a church as worshippers emerged from a New Year's Eve mass, killing 23 people.

The State Department lists eight countries of particular concern for religious freedom: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Most have rocky ties with the United States.

The commission again asked the State Department to add Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the list. Besides Egypt, the recommendations were the same as the last annual report in 2010.

In China, the commission said that authorities severely curtailed the freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims and stepped up efforts to discredit and imprison leaders of various faiths.

In the past year, China detained more than 500 Protestants and kept in custody dozens of Catholic clergy for not registering with the government, the commission said, adding that China had also destroyed Christian meeting points.

The board reported severe mistreatment of the Falungong, a spiritual movement banned by China in 1999, saying that practitioners were "tortured and mistreated in detention."

The commission said that religious freedom was also deteriorating in Iran, especially for minorities such as the Bahai – a faith founded in the country in the 19th century that is considered heretical by the Shiite clerical regime.

Recognized minorities — Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians — also suffered worsening treatment, and even members of the Shiite majority came under pressure if they dissented from the official line, the commission said.

The report said Saudi Arabia's record improved slightly but that it still committed "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" against those who do not hew to its austere interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Among countries recommended to be put on the blacklist, the commission voiced deep concern about Pakistan, where Punjab's governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated this year.

The two had advocated reforms to Pakistan's blasphemy laws. The commission said the laws had contributed to an "atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism" against minorities including the Ahmadiya Muslim sect.

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