September 13th, 2011
06:42 PM ET
By Elise Labott, CNN
Washington (CNN) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Tuesday about an often overlooked downside to the Arab Spring.
The popular revolts against longtime dictators in the Middle East and North Africa may have given hope to millions of Arabs, but the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report found that the uprisings have exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers.
Growing religious intolerance, Clinton warned, threatened to undermine these fragile democratic transitions.
“People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or faith. In other places, we have seen governments stand by while sectarian violence inflamed by religious animosities tears communities apart.”
Urging nations in the region to embrace the freedom to worship for all faiths as they embrace political pluralism for the first time in generations, Clinton warned them not to “trade one form of repression for another.”
In particular, the report, which reviewed religious liberties in 198 countries, singled out Egypt, where there have been clashes between Muslims and Christians and there been several attacks against Copts. The U.S. called on the military government to pass laws protecting all religions. It also noted significant problems in Iraq, where religious minorities and Shiite pilgrims have been the targets of devastating attacks.
Clinton noted Monday's attack by gunmen on Shiite pilgrims in Iraq, calling it a “hateful, senseless” act that had “no aim other than to undermine the fabric of peaceful society.”
In Pakistan, the report cited the government for using a blasphemy law that to prosecute religious minorities and, in some cases, Muslims who promote tolerance or to settle personal vendettas. Several politicians and officials have been assassinated for calling for report of the law.
As the worst offenders, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan remained “countries of particular concern.”
The designation means the countries engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom,” including persecution, harassment, abuse, discrimination and detention of religious minorities or activists and the prohibition of practicing religions not sanctioned by the government.
Countries of particular concern are subject to U.S. sanctions if they fail to take greater steps to protect religious freedom. The U.S. has slapped six of the eight on the list with sanctions, but Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were exempted.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent that monitors religious liberties worldwide, had urged the U.S. to add Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan, along with Vietnam and Nigeria, to the watch list. Other countries cited for religious intolerance were Afghanistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.
State Department officials said the Iraq and Pakistan have taken significant measures to protect religious freedom over last year. While more needed to be done, officials who prepared the report felt it would be unfair to punish those countries while they were trying to improve their records and wanted to encourage them.
But those nations aren't exactly getting a free pass. Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, urged countries with problems to continue to address them. The U.S. was prepared, he warned, to add countries to the blacklist "if the situation warrants."
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.