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Religion | U.S. religious freedom commission adds Egypt to its list of worst offenders

WASHINGTON-Reflecting the recent upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2011 annual report was released Thursday, with Egypt joining the short list of countries deemed to be the world's worst violators of religious freedom.

"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011," the report reads.

Leonard Leo, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), said the central concern was the "impunity" the Egyptian government has fostered. The report said the government failed to protect Coptic Christians from attacks, like the bombing of a Coptic church on New Year's Eve that killed 23 and wounded almost 100. Since Mubarak stepped down earlier this year, the report said military and security forces have targeted Christian places of worship and Christian demonstrators. Egypt's designation as a "country of particular concern (CPC)," the worst category for religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act, makes it one of 14 countries on the commission's list.

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The independent, government-funded commission travels, researches, then publishes a report every year to document foreign governments' abuses of religious freedom. The U.S. State Department is supposed to take the commission's recommendations into account as it prepares its own report and considers actions against violators of religious freedom. The USCIRF will need congressional reauthorization this year.

The commission so far has not included Afghanistan as a CPC, despite the government's oppression of religious minorities, especially Christians, as in the case of Sayed Musa, who was sentenced to death last year because he converted from Islam to Christianity, but won reprieve after the government came under international pressure.

"It's really a matter of time before Afghanistan is [a] CPC," said Nina Shea, one of the commissioners, because of the lack of protection for religious minorities in the country's constitution, which exalts Islam above all other laws. Shea and Leo attached a statement to the report saying, "The United States' unwillingness to place serious pressure on the Karzai government to address human rights fully will only hasten the downward slide."

The State Department currently has eight CPCs listed-Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan-but the agency hasn't officially designated any countries since 2009. The total list of CPCs that the USCIRF has recommended, in addition to those already on the State Department list, include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

"Arguably the most glaring omission [from the State Department's CPC list]," Shea said, is Pakistan, where two leading opponents of the country's blasphemy laws were assassinated in recent months.

The State Department's inaction in designating new CPCs may be in part because the post of ambassador for international religious freedom has been vacant for the past two years. (The Senate recently confirmed New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook for the job.) The length of the vacancy combined with the U.S. government's silence on the issue spurred a number of religious freedom advocates, including the commission, to conclude that religious freedom was not a priority for the Obama administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged as much at a March hearing on Capitol Hill, speaking about religious freedom for minority faiths in the Middle East specifically. "This has not gotten the level of attention and concern that it should," she said.

A glimmer in the report: For the first time in 12 years, the United Nations Human Rights Council did not pass a "defamation of religions" resolution, which is essentially a blasphemy law pushed by Islamic countries. Pakistan typically has introduced the resolutions. Instead, the body passed a resolution against religious intolerance, discrimination, and incitement to violence-a measure the State Department has been pushing behind the scenes as a replacement for defamation resolutions.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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