Millions of people around the world are still deprived of the right to practice their religion, according to the United State’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Iran, Iraq, China and North Korea were outlined as being particularly hostile to certain religions, according to the report.

“Our commitment to religious liberty lies at the heart of our national experience as Americans,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a press conference. “Many of our ancestors fled religious persecution, coming to these shores seeking the freedom to practice their faith. They laid the foundation for a society in which every person could worship free of fear, free of discrimination, and free of coercion. Americans now live in a country in which faith and freedom thrive.”

U.S. religious freedom policy is a means of fighting the war on terrorism, and the Sept. 11 attacks “have had significant implications for that policy,” the report noted.

“The attacks by Al-Qaeda highlighted the reality that people can and do exploit religion for terrible purposes, in some cases manipulating and destroying other human beings as mere instruments in the process,” read the report. “This is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon in human affairs. In the post-Cold War world, some scholars are predicting that religious differences are likely to be a cause of major conflicts between civilizations.”

According to the report, Afghanistan was the only country displaying a significant improvement in religious freedom. The interim government in Afghanistan “administers a far more tolerant regime,” read the report.

The report provided detailed information about the state of religious freedom in various countries. Some of the findings included:

China: Unapproved religious and spiritual groups remain under scrutiny and, in some cases, harsh repression. The government continues its harsh treatment of Falun Gong.

Iraq: The government continues its vicious policies against Shias. It has desecrated Shia mosques and holy sites, disrupted Shia religious ceremonies and interfered with Shia religious education. There were also reports that the government engaged in various abuses against the country’s Assyrian and Chaldean Christians.

Russia: The government continues to use legislation to restrict religious freedom, in particular the provision allowing the state to ban religious organizations. A number of clergy and religious workers, especially Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians, have been denied visas. The declaration of one of only four Roman Catholic bishops in Russia as persona non grata placed serious restrictions on the ability of Russian Catholics to practice their religion. Anti-Semitic leaflets, graffiti and articles continued to appear in some areas, such as St. Petersburg.

Nigeria: The implementation of an expanded version of Shari’a (Islamic law) in several northern states challenged constitutional protections of religious freedom. Many northern states continued to ban or limit public proselytizing, although it is permitted by the constitution. In addition, in many states government officials sometimes discriminated against adherents of minority religions in hiring practices, awarding of state contracts and granting of permits and licenses.

France: The government continues to monitor “sects” through the Interministerial Mission in the Fight against Sects/Cults (MILS). Members of some of the 173 groups identified as cults in a 1996 parliamentary commission report have alleged instances of intolerance due to the ensuing publicity.

The report also outlined injustices in Cuba, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Vietnam and many other countries.

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.

Click here for a list of all the countries covered in the report.

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