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Egypt's Islamists must respect minorities

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday the jury was out on whether Egypt's Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims, and said the Obama administration's future relationship with President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would depend on how they respect the rights of Coptic Christians, women and other minorities.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Clinton recounted the discussions she had with Morsi and Egyptian Christians when she visited Cairo earlier this month. She said Egypt was still grappling with the challenge of religious liberty as it seeks to establish a democracy after decades of dictatorship.

"I heard from Christians who want to know that they will be accorded the same rights and respect as all Egyptians in a new government led by an Islamist party," Clinton said. "They wonder, will a government looking explicitly to greater reliance on Islamic principles stand up for non-Muslims and Muslims equally? Since this is the first time that Egypt has been in this situation, it's a fair question."

Clinton, addressing the Washington think tank after the State Department released its annual assessment of religious freedom around the world, commended Egypt's new president for saying "clearly and repeatedly, in public and private, that he intends to be the president of all Egyptians." She noted Morsi's pledge to include women and Christians in top leadership positions, and said the U.S. would now monitor how senior government roles are distributed in Egypt's new government.

"We are going to judge by actions, not words, and the actions are just at the very beginning stages," Clinton said.

"We are prepared to work with the leaders that the Egyptian people choose," she said. "And our engagement with those leaders will be based on their commitment to universal democratic principles."

Monday's religious freedom report criticized U.S. allies Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also taking aim at chronic violators Iran, China and North Korea.

It said Afghanistan's courts interpret Islamic law to punish non-Muslims for exercising their faith. Pakistan has issued death sentences for cases of blasphemy and despite increased extremist attacks on minorities or even pro-tolerance Muslims there, authorities have rarely investigated perpetrators.

"When it comes to this human right — this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies — the world is sliding backwards," Clinton said.

The report particularly highlighted blasphemy and religious "defamation" laws in Muslim countries.

It lamented long prison sentences and lashings for people in Saudi Arabia charged with "insulting" the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and warned that people in Pakistan who've only criticized the blasphemy laws have been killed. Those who have been killed include liberal politician Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in the Cabinet.

Government efforts against "violent extremists" also came under scrutiny.

The report said Bahraini, Russian, Iraqi and Nigerian authorities don't always distinguish terrorism from peaceful religious practice.

Iran's government was criticized for imprisoning leaders of the Baha'i community and for the plight of imprisoned Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who faces possible execution.

Respect for Tibetan Buddhists deteriorated last year, while many religious and spiritual groups remain outlawed in China, the report said.

In North Korea, it added, "religious freedom simply does not exist."

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