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Christians persecuted at alarming rate in Iran, Arab world, US report says

Christians are under siege in the Middle East, and the Obama administration is not doing enough to stop religious persecution by its allies, according to a new report from a bipartisan federal commission.

The report, from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, faulted usual suspects Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as North Korea. The number of Christians in the Middle East has plunged to just 10 percent of the overall population from more than 25 percent in 2011.

"While the Obama administration should continue to shine a spotlight on abuses through public statements, it also should impose targeted sanctions to demonstrate that there are consequences, too," Dwight Bashir, the commission's deputy director of policy and research, told FoxNews.com. "By not utilizing an existing legislative tool, the United States risks sending the message that it prefers a nuclear deal to standing up for the rights of the Iranian people. The United States should not be confronting such a scenario in the first place."

"By not utilizing an existing legislative tool, the United States risks sending the message that it prefers a nuclear deal to standing up for the rights of the Iranian people."

- Dwight Bashir, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

The report identified the 16 worst violators of religious freedom, designating them "countries of particular concern." It said Iran, a fixture on the commission's reports since it began issuing them in 1999, has only gotten worse since "purportedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani" came to power last year.

“As of February 2014, at least 40 Christians were either in prison, detained or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities,” noted the report.

Morad Mokhtari, an Iranian human rights researcher at the New Haven, Conn., Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, told FoxNews.com any hopes that Rouhani would usher in a more tolerant age in the Islamic Republic have been dashed. Mokhtari, an Iranian Christian, said Rouhani “has not been effective in changing the judicial system” and it is unclear if he wants to reform Iran’s Shariah-dominated legal apparatus.

Hamid Babaei, spokesman for Iran’s mission to the UN, told FoxNews.com that he would review the commission's report, but declined further comment.

Saudi Arabia -- a traditional U.S. ally in the Gulf region -- was criticized because it bans all non-Islamic religious institutions and practices.

“Not a single church or other non-Muslim house of worship exists in the country,” the report stated. Some Saudi Arabia textbooks in 2013/2014 “justified violence against apostates and polytheists and labeled Jews and Christians ‘enemies.’"

During his March visit to the Kingdom, President Obama chose not to raise human rights issues with King Abdullah or other Saudi officials. Prior to Obama’s trip, a bipartisan group of 70 members of Congress urged Obama to address Saudi Arabia’s ban of women drivers and other important human rights cases.

FoxNews.com telephone and email queries were not returned by Nail Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic spokesman in Washington.

The report also lamented the plight of Christians in Egypt, although most of the blame was laid at the feet of the ousted government of Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president ousted by the military last year.

"Despite some progress during a turbulent political transition, the Morsi-era government and the interim government failed or were slow to protect religious minorities, particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians, from violence,” the report stated, before implying that the Obama administration should use its leverage to protect the Christians who make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt's population. "Egypt is one of America’s most important allies in the Middle East. Just last month, the Obama administration approved a shipment of attack Apache helicopters to the military-run government."

Outside of the Middle East, the commission cited secretive communist dictatorship North Korea as a major violator of religious freedom. 

"[The so-called hermit Kingdom] maintains a songbun system, which classifies families according to their loyalty to the Kim family; religious believers have the lowest songbun rating," the report found. "Spreading Christianity is a political crime. Many religious believers are incarcerated in infamous penal labor camps.” 

In 2013, North Korea sentenced U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years in prison for his activity on behalf of the evangelical organization Youth With A Mission.

Pakistan -- a U.S. ally on paper -- was cited by the report as having gutted religious freedom by failing to protect Christians and discriminating against Hindus and other religious minorities. “Violence against Christians continued” the report noted, citing the Pakistan Taliban suicide bombers attack on the All Saints Church in 2013. The attack killed more than 100 people.

Sudan, where most of the population is Muslim, was designated because of its ruthless crackdown on converts.

“Conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death, suspected converts to Christianity face societal pressure and  government security personnel intimidate and sometimes torture those suspected of conversion,” wrote the commission.

The additional sanctioned countries of particular concern were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

“The defense of religious freedom is both a human rights imperative and a practical necessity and merits a seat at the table with economic, security and other key concerns of U.S. foreign policy,” Commission Chairman Robert George stated.

Benjamin Weinthal reports on the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter@BenWeinthal.