WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States sees a mixed picture on world religious freedom, with progress in interfaith dialogue weighed against government repression and sectarian strife in many countries.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday unveiled the latest State Department report on global religious freedom, which particularly criticized Iran and North Korea among other countries for harsh limits on religious expression.
“It is our hope that the ... report will encourage existing religious freedom movements around the world,” Clinton said, adding that all people should have the right to believe or not as they see fit.
The report tagged North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, China, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan among the worst offenders, placing them on a watch list put out earlier this year.
Officials said the latest review would help determine whether they stay on the list, which could leave some open to additional U.S. sanctions.
Michael Posner, the State Department’s top official for democracy and human rights, said President Barack Obama’s call this year for a new beginning between the United States and Muslims did not mean sidelining religious liberty.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, a social good, a source of stability, and a key to international security,” Posner said in the introduction to the report.
Posner praised interfaith dialogue efforts promoted by Jordan, Spain and other countries. But religious repression and discrimination remained huge problems worldwide.
“We’re fully aware that even in countries with robust legal safeguards, including the United States, we’re not immune from acts of intolerance,” he said.
The annual report, compiled from sources including journalists, academics, non-governmental organizations, and human rights and religious groups, provides a long list of both setbacks and progress on religious freedom around the world.
RELIGION DOESN’T TRUMP FREE SPEECH - CLINTON
Clinton said she opposed efforts promoted by some Islamic countries to establish a global benchmark for what constitutes “defamation of a religion,” saying it could be an unacceptable intrusion on free speech rights.
“The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions,” she said.
The report detailed how religious repression is the norm in many countries.
North Korea, which U.S. officials believe has between 150,000 and 200,000 people in political prison camps, some for religious reasons, has been on the U.S. list since 2001.
“Genuine religious freedom does not exist,” the report said, noting that North Korea, which does not have formal diplomatic relations with the United States, blocks almost all independent assessment of conditions within its borders.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the first a foe, the second an ally of the United States, were both criticized for extremely repressive religious attitudes.
China, which U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit in November, was cited for some improvements, including increased tolerance of some religious groups the government sees as nonthreatening.
But the report criticized Beijing for repression in Tibet of followers of the Dalai Lama and in the western region of Xinjiag, which saw a wave of violence in July after a crackdown on protests by traditionally Muslim Uighurs.
Editing by Alan Elsner and Vicki Allen