'Pakistan, Iran, Saudi violate religious freedom'
Washington, May 4 : The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to designate 11 nations, including Pakistan, Burma and Iran, as ''countries of particular concern'' for violations of religious freedom.
The commission, which released its annual report here on Tuesday, has added Afghanistan to its 'watchlist' of countries that violate religious freedom and said Iraq and Afghanistan pose growing threats to the freedom of worship.
The report has recommended 11 countries to be designated as ''countries of particular concern'' by the State Department, for being the worst violators of religious freedom, meaning they could face sanctions.
Those countries are China, North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
The findings of the commission come in the congressionally mandated group's annual report for 2006. The agency's findings and recommendations go to the White House, the State Department and to Capitol Hill.
In a letter to Ms Rice, included in the report, Commission Chairman Michael Cromartie said the panel is trying to draw attention to ''countries, whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom.'' ''The situation in Afghanistan and Iraq serve to underscore the precarious state of this fundamental freedom,'' Mr Cromartie wrote.
The report said Afghanistan and Iraq were two countries where ''the universal right to religious freedom is imperiled.'' ''Religious extremism, even in official circles, is an increasing threat to democratic consolidation in Afghanistan,'' the report added.
Commissioner Preeta Bansal said Afghanistan has been added to the group's watch list, which is made up of countries where the commission has concerns about the future of religious freedom.
''The principal concern of the commission consists of flaws in the country's new Constitution,'' she said, adding, ''the Constitution does not contain clear protections for the right of freedom of religion or belief for individual Afghan citizens.'' Citing an example, she pointed to the recent high-profile case of Abdur Rahman, an Afghan citizen, who was threatened with the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity.
Afghanistan joins Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Indonesia, Nigeria and the US ally Egypt as nations where, ''discrimination, intolerance and other human rights violations affect a broad spectrum of religious groups,'' including Coptic Christians, Bahais, Jews and members of minority Muslim communities, the report said. Meanwhile, Nina Shea, another member of the Commission, called on the US government to take action against Saudi Arabia, which the State Department named as a so-called country of particular concern in its annual religious freedom report in November 2005.
''Since religious freedom conditions in Saudi Arabia have not substantially improved in the last year, the US government must not hesitate in taking aggressive action to demonstrate that it will not disregard the persistent and egregious religious freedom violations committed by the Saudi government,'' she said.
Ms Shea noted that a waiver period, Washington initially granted to Riyadh, which allowed the two sides to discuss the issue, has expired. She also urged that any agreement reached between the US and Saudi governments be made public.
The commission criticised the President George W Bush's administration for failing to punish Saudi Arabia for violations listed in last year's report and urged it to take action this year.
The performance of Pakistan in its efforts to protect the minorities has improved, but still fell short, the report said.