Report: Iraqis Losing Religious Freedom

Washington, USA - Religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in Iraq over the past year because of both the insurgency and violence targeting specific faiths, despite the U.S. military buildup intended to improve security, says a State Department report to be released Friday.

The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom finds that all worshippers are targeted for attacks and the violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

"The ongoing insurgency significantly harmed the ability of all religious believers to practice their faith," says the 22-page executive summary of the report, obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its official release by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"While the presence of varying levels of lawlessness in certain areas permitted criminal gangs, terrorists, and insurgents to victimize citizens, and while this affected persons of all ethnicities and religious groups in such areas, many individuals from various religious groups were targeted because of their religious identity or their secular leanings," the report says.

It finds that members of all religions in Iraq are "victims of harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, and killings" and that "frequent sectarian violence included attacks on places of worship."

Muslims who practice less-strict versions of their faith suffer because "conservative and extremist Islamic elements exert tremendous pressure on society to conform to their interpretations of Islam's precepts," the report says.

At the same time, it says, "non-Muslims (are) especially vulnerable to pressure and violence, because of their minority status and, often, because of the lack of a protective tribal structure."

The summary does not mention specific incidents of violence other than the February 22, 2006, bombing of a Shia mosque in the town of Samarra. The report does not cover the month of August 2007, when 520 mainly members of the Yazidi community, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, were killed in quadruple suicide bombings blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq.

Outside of Iraq, the report also notes severe problems with religious freedom in a number of other Islamic or majority-Muslim nations, among them Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of which are U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.

_ Afghanistan: "Decades of war, years of Taliban rule, and weak democratic institutions, including a developing judiciary, have contributed to intolerance manifested in acts of harassment and violence against reform-minded Muslims and religious minorities," it says. "Despite reform efforts, condemnations of conversions from Islam and censorship increased concerns about citizens' ability to freely practice minority religions."

_ Pakistan: "The government took some steps to improve the treatment of religious minorities during the period covered by this report, but serious problems remained," it says. "Discriminatory legislation and the Government's failure to take action against societal forces hostile to those who practice minority faiths fostered religious intolerance, acts of violence, and intimidation against followers of certain religious groups."

In Saudi Arabia, a country where faiths other than Islam are illegal and that usually comes in for harsh criticism on lack of religious freedom, the report notes some positive progress.

"While overall government policies continue to place severe restrictions on religious freedom, there were some improvements in specific areas during the period covered by this report," it says, noting nascent moves that "could lead to important improvements in the future."

Still, it says "non-Muslims and Muslims who do not adhere to the government's interpretation of Islam continued to face significant political, economic, legal, social, and religious discrimination."