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US hits out at Europe, Egypt over religious freedoms

The United States warned the world was sliding backwards on religious freedoms Monday, criticizing violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt and citing European laws banning Muslim veils.

As the State Department unveiled its first full report on religious freedoms since the start of the Arab Spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was a “signal to the worst offenders” that the world was watching.

“New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression,” Clinton told a US think-tank, adding that pressure was rising on some faith groups around the globe.

“When it comes to this human right — this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies — the world is sliding backward.”

The 2011 International Religious Freedom Report noted that despite gestures by Egypt‘s interim military leaders towards greater inclusiveness, sectarian tensions and violence had increased.

It denounced “both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks.”

Clinton, who visited Egypt earlier this month, said she had had “a very emotional, very personal conversation with Christians who are deeply anxious about what the future holds for them and their country.”

She said Egypt’s new leader, President Mohamed Morsi, who emerged from the Islamic Brotherhood to become the country’s first democratically-elected president, had vowed in their talks “to be the president of all Egyptians.”

But Christians were asking “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 said.

The report also signaled “a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom in China” and it noted that religious freedom does not exist in any form in North Korea.

China and North Korea along with Myanmar are among eight countries designated by Clinton as being of particular concern for their failure to recognize religious rights.

They are accompanied by Eritrea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The report also warned that European nations undergoing major demographic shifts have seen “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’”

It complains of a “rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others.”

Ambassador at large for religious freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, accused some governments of limiting “the right to wear or not to wear religious attire.”

“This decision should be a personal choice,” she insisted to journalists when she presented the report at the State Department.

The report also documents “a global increase in anti-Semitism, manifested in Holocaust denial, glorification and relativism.”

And it criticizes a law passed by the Hungarian parliament to regulate the registration of religious organizations.

“The law went into effect on January 1, 2012, reducing the number of recognized religious groups from over 300 to fewer than 32,” it noted.

Belgium and France have outraged many Muslims with laws against full veils, such as the niqab worn by many women in Saudi Arabia or the Afghan burqa, which went into force last year and in some places are punishable by fines.

US President Barack Obama fiercely criticized European moves to ban the veil in a major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009.

But in Europe, where many voters feel large Muslim immigrant populations are not integrating well and that Islam poses a threat to women’s rights, many see France and Belgium as leading the way on this issue.

The report also took aim at countries, such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, using blasphemy laws to “restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities and limit freedom of expression.”

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