WASHINGTON – 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.
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.
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.