updated 9/15/2006 4:27:27 PM ET 2006-09-15T20:27:27

A “threatening atmosphere” in Iran is causing a deterioration in already restricted religious freedom for nearly all minorities despite repeated expressions of concern by the United Nations, the State Department said Friday.

Baha’is and Sufi Muslims especially and other religious groups not recognized by the Iranian constitution are not free to practice their faiths, the department said in its annual report to Congress on religious freedom around the world.

Eight countries, including Iran, were cited for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The others were Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.

“We hope this report will serve as a source of encouragement for those whose plight is documented in this report,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

“While democracy and respect for basic freedoms have gained ground throughout the world, many governments still pay no more than lip service to their responsibilities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements,” said John V. Hanford III, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

At a news conference, Hanford credited Vietnam with making “enormous progress” on religious freedom, and said in Saudi Arabia “we see things moving in the right direction.”

On the other hand, he denounced Uzbekistan for singling out some Muslims and Christians for “brutal treatment” on the grounds that they support terrorism. There are instances of abusing Muslims on the basis of no more than wearing a beard, he said.

Israel’s response to terrorist attacks in Palestinian-held territories has severely curtailed access by Palestinians to their places of worship, the report said, although it said the Jewish state for the most part respects religious freedom.

There were credible reports, meanwhile, that the Palestinian Authority colluded with members of gangs to seize land from Christians, it said.

Islam is the official religion in Saudi Arabia and the law requires all citizens to be Muslims. Public practice of other religions is prohibited.

And yet, the report said, the Saudi government continued a campaign against official extremism while King Abdullah and other Saudi officials called for the promotion of tolerance.

Still, there were instances in which imams made intolerant statements toward Jews and other religious groups.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent U.S. government agency, said it was “simply shocked” by what it called an unwarranted softening of the State Department’s assessment of Saudi Arabia.

“Freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” Felice D. Gaer, the commission chair, said in a statement.

Only one Saudi religion permitted
The Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam and forcefully represses private religious practice, the commission said.

It also said that Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan should be added to the list of the eight most severe violators of religious freedom.

In Sudan, the State Department found some improvement in respect for religious freedom, but in the north of the country the government denied building permits for Christian churches and required all students to study Islam.

In France, some religious groups remain concerned about a 2004 law that bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. And despite government efforts to stop them, anti-Semitic attacks persisted.

In Pakistan, the report said, reform-minded Muslims were intimidated and Ahmadiyya community continued to barred from practicing their faith.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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