April 28th, 2011
03:33 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) - Egypt has been added to a list of countries named as the worst violators of religious freedom for the first time, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom announced Thursday in releasing its annual report.
"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2001," the commissioners wrote in the report. They cited violence toward religious minorities in Egypt including Coptic Christians and non-majority Muslim groups.
"Since February 11, religious freedom conditions have not improved and attacks targeting religious minorities have continued," the report said.
The group, an independent, bipartisan federal commission, said Egypt was put on the list of "Countries of Particular Concern" for "a number of very specific reasons but one that was a particular concern to the commissioners was the issue of impunity," commission chair Leonard Leo told reporters at a Washington news conference about the report.
One benchmark the commission looked at for Egypt, Leo said, was the trial following the Nag Hammadi shootings, which involved a massacre on the day Coptic Christians celebrate their Christmas Eve services.
"That, for us, was a very important signal the impunity issue was getting worse and not better. When you combine that with other conditions that have existed, particularly various elements of state sponsored repression, we believe there was sufficient grounds for triggering the (International Religious Freedom) act standard, which is a systematic, egregious violations of the freedom of religion," Leo said.
Elizabeth Prodromou, a vice-chair of the commission, said the group noted "both a qualitative, as well as a quantitative, deterioration in religious freedom issues in Egypt."
"In particular, we saw a dramatic uptick in targeted religious violence, primarily against the Coptic Orthodox community, but also against the Roman Catholic community and other Christian communities," she said.
The commission recommended that the U.S. military direct some of the "existing military assistance" to protecting Coptic Christians and other religious minorities, in addition to diplomatic efforts to pressure the new government with reform measures.
Also on the CPC list of religious freedom violators: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
The USCIRF takes its list of CPCs to the secretary of state at the State Department, which maintains its own list of countries of particular concern. When a country lands on this list for what is determined to be "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedom, then the president is required by law to take action - such as sanctions or other diplomatic pressures on those countries.
The commission pointed out in its report that the Obama administration has not added any countries to the State Department CPC list.
The aim of the report and list is "naming and shaming" - if the United States calls these other countries out, perhaps they will change their behavior.
The commission pointed to Vietnam as an example of a country that changed its behavior in the past when it was added to the State Department's CPC list. After it was taken off the list several years ago, conditions worsened and it has since been put back on the list.
The annual report is one of the main functions of the commission. It was formed in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act. The president and Congress appoint its commissioners, who review violations around the globe and report back with policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
"The commission is a unique body in the world. There is no other government institution like it in any other country that looks only at issues of international freedom and belief," Leo said. In their discussions and pushing for change, he said, they only use international human rights instruments.
There is no domestic focus for the group, only an international one, and the commissioners come from a diverse spectrum of American religious life. They include a Baptist minister, an imam, a human rights lawyer and a religious scholar.
"One of our requirements we've established internally is we have to have six votes to make a recommendation," said Richard Land, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Given the diversity of this commission, I'm not sure we'd be able to get six votes on most domestic issues."
The report covered a period from April 2010 to March 2011. The commissioners said they traveled the globe to get a firsthand account of issues of concern and spoke with numerous U.S. officials to get a broad spectrum of information for the report.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.