- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nigeria has risen to the top tier of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom, according to an annual report to be released Thursday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The independent bipartisan governmental agency, whose report details abuse in 28 nations, singled out Nigeria for not punishing religiously motivated violence, such as what took place in January when 500 Christians near the city of Jos were hacked to death by Muslims.

Calling Nigeria “a tragic case,” the USCIRF said its investigators visited Africa’s largest country three times over the past year to find out why more than 12,000 Nigerians - Christians and Muslims alike - have died in sectarian violence since 1999.

“Not a single criminal, Muslim or Christian, has been convicted and sentenced in Nigeria’s 10 years of religious violence,” the report says. “The Nigerian government and judicial system have so far been unwilling or unable to protect either side.”

A spokeswoman for the Nigerian Embassy could not be reached for comment.

Other nations named by the commission - which makes policy recommendations to the State Department, Congress and the president - as among the worst violators are China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Eritrea, Iraq and Uzbekistan.

The following are “watch list” countries, which have only slightly better records: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikstan, Turkey and Venezuela.

Saudi Arabia, the report says, continues to circulate “educational materials that instill hate and incite violence throughout the world”; the Iranian government denies all rights to its Baha’i minority; the Egyptian government mistreats Baha’is and Coptic Christians; China restricts all manner of religious activities; and North Korea imprisons even the grandchildren of those caught praying.

There are an estimated 40,000 religious prisoners in North Korea, including 6,000 Christians in the infamous Prison 15 in the country’s north. Those prisoners are treated worse than other inmates, the report says, and those who are pregnant are sometimes forced to abort their children or their newborns are killed in the camps.

Those lucky enough to escape into China are often forced back over the border by the Chinese government despite international obligations to help asylum seekers, the religious-freedom panel says. Once back in North Korea, the prisoners suffer even worse tortures.

Since Iran’s disputed June 12 election, the report says, religious freedom conditions have sunk to a 30-year low, with the country’s Shi’ite rulers imprisoning other Shi’ites as well as Sunni and Sufi Muslims. Of the non-Muslim groups, the nation’s 300,000 Baha’is are treated the worst, the report says, with seven of their top leaders in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for the past two years.

Christians, the report adds, also are subject to heavy doses of imprisonment, arrests while attending church services, harassment and the seizure of their belongings to the point that many have fled the country. The year 2009 also saw increases in officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda, with one newspaper sponsoring a Holocaust-denial editorial cartoon contest.

Next door in Iraq, religious minorities such as the Mandaeans - who follow the teachings of John the Baptist - see no future for themselves in the country, and 90 percent of them are said to have been killed or to have fled Iraq.

The numbers of Christians are down by two-thirds from 1.4 million adherents in 2003, the report says, and in February, 10 Christians were killed in Mosul, prompting 4,300 other Christians to flee the city. No perpetrators have been arrested; a chronic problem facing religious minorities in Iraq.