- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

A rise in fundamentalism around the world poses an increasing threat to religious freedoms and could inspire new sectarian violence, a senior State Department official said yesterday as the U.S. government released its annual global survey on religious freedom.

John V. Hanford III, State Department ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said the new religious fundamentalism could be seen in a number of faiths, but the latest report contained sharp criticisms of a number of Muslim states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The rise in fundamentalism “is not restricted to one religion,” Mr. Hanford said in a press briefing, saying it could be seen in “certain corners of the Muslim world, the Hindu world and the Buddhist world.”

“Followers of this approach to various faiths have increasingly taken efforts either to create sectarian violence and attack people of other faiths, or to try to work through their governments to bring about change that would pass laws highly restrictive on other religions,” he said.

Eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam — are listed as countries of “particular concern” by the U.S. government for their records on religious repression. An updated list of problem countries will be issued in the next few weeks, Mr. Hanford said.

Despite the resentment and diplomatic tensions the report has sparked in the past, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in releasing the report that promoting religious freedom and tolerance abroad “is an essential component of our national security.”

In Iran, the report found a “further deterioration of the extremely poor status of respect of religious freedom” in the 12-month period ending June 30, in particular for the Islamic republic’s Baha’i and Sufi Muslim minorities.

Mr. Hanford also singled out Uzbekistan for criticism for its recent crackdown on religious minorities, saying the government of President Islam Karimov had stepped up restrictions on both Christian and Islamic groups not registered with authorities.

The most delicate case in the report may be Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic state but also a critical U.S. ally and oil supplier in the volatile Middle East. The report found no change in the state of religious freedom in the kingdom in the past year, but Mr. Hanford said there were signs of a more tolerant attitude by Saudi leaders.

Miss Rice used her legal authority to waive sanctions against Saudi Arabia despite its record on religious intolerance.

“Some of the issues that would concern us about religious freedom are so endemic to [Saudi] society and to its role within Islam, that these sorts of issues are not going to change in the near future,” Mr. Hanford said.

But, he added, “we are very encouraged by the position of the Saudi government … as well as by a number of statements that have been made by King Abdullah, which I think are forward-leaning.”

But the Saudi Arabia section of the report was sharply criticized by the head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal monitoring agency.

Commission Chairwoman Felice D. Gaer said her panel was “simply shocked” by a softening of the language criticizing Saudi Arabia’s record. Previous State Department assessments had flatly stated that freedom of religion “does not exist” in Saudi Arabia.

She said the Saudi government sharply limits religious practice at home and bankrolls activities around the world that promote the kingdom’s restrictive brand of Islam.

She added that evidence provided in the new department report justified adding Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan to the list of countries of particular concern when the new designation list is released.

Mr. Hanford said U.S. officials have seen improvements in religious tolerance in some countries, including Laos and Vietnam. He said the United States had refrained from using sanctions against Vietnam despite its designation as a country of particular concern.

“Vietnam has turned the corner and made enormous progress on religious freedom,” he said.

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