US hits out at Europe, Egypt over religious freedoms

Jo Biddle
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Kenza Drider, candidate for the 2012 French presidential election

Kenza Drider, candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, speaks in 2011 in front of the police tribunal in Paris, after being fined for violating France's niqab ban. The United States on Monday accused Egypt, China and European nations of harming religious freedom, citing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, laws banning Muslim veils and attacks on Coptic Christians.

The United States on Monday accused Egypt, China and European nations of harming religious freedom, citing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, laws banning Muslim veils and attacks on Coptic Christians.

In its first report on religious freedoms since the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, the State Department warned that: "In times of transition, the situation of religious minorities in these societies comes to the forefront."

"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 tensions," it warned.

The report which details the situation in 2011 noted that in Egypt, although the Arab country's interim military leaders had made gestures towards greater inclusiveness, sectarian tensions and violence had increased.

It denounced "both the Egyptian government's failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks."

Ambassador at large for religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, acknowledged that places like Egypt were "still in transition" as new governments are installed following uprisings in 2011 against autocratic leaders.

"We're looking, as they form new constitutions, it's a wonderful opportunity to include... religious freedom," she told journalists presenting the report.

Governments should also hold accountable those carrying out violent attacks against religious minorities, she added.

The State Department also signaled "a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government's respect for and protection of religious freedom in China" and noted that religious freedom does not exist in any form in North Korea.

"In Burma, long-simmering tensions recently erupted in widespread violence against the marginalized Rohingya community," Johnson Cook added.

Myanmar or Burma, China and North Korea are among eight countries designated by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as countries of particular concern for their failure to recognize religious rights.

They are accompanied by Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The report also warned that European nations undergoing major demographic shifts have seen "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered 'the other.'"

It complains of a "rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others."

Ambassador at large for religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, accused some governments of limiting "the right to wear or not to wear religious attire."

"This decision should be a personal choice," she insisted to journalists, presenting the report at the State Department.

Clinton, who was to comment on the report later Monday, met Egypt's new President Mohamed Morsi earlier this month to urge him to respect the rights of all Egyptians.

She also held two hours of private talks with Christian leaders to hear their concerns about life under the new Egyptian leadership, much of which is drawn like Morsi from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The report also documents "a global increase in anti-Semitism, manifested in Holocaust denial, glorification and relativism."

And it criticizes a law passed by the Hungarian parliament to regulate registration of religious organizations.

"The law went into effect on January 1, 2012, reducing the number of recognized religious groups from over 300 to fewer than 32," it noted.

Belgium and France have outraged many Muslims with laws against full veils, such as the niqab worn by many women in Saudi Arabia or the Afghan burqa, which went into force last year and in some places are punishable by fines.

US President Barack Obama fiercely criticized European moves to ban the veil in a major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009.

But in Europe, where many voters feel large Muslim immigrant populations are not integrating well and that Islam poses a threat to women's rights, many see France and Belgium as leading the way on this issue.

The report also took aim at countries, such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, using blasphemy laws to "restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities and limit freedom of expression."