List of Religious Rights Violators Disputed

From Times Wire Services

The State Department has singled out six countries as violators of religious freedom, but critics say the agency left some prime suspects off the list.

The State Department named Burma, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Sudan as "countries of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act -- the same nations selected in 2001 when the list was last compiled.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency that advises the government, criticized the State Department for passing over six additional nations where "egregious abuses persist or have increased" in recent years.

The commission said it had suggested listing India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Laos and Vietnam -- countries that "even the State Department's own religious freedom reports" document as severe violators.

Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Sultan told reporters last weekend that his country is "not against religions at all ... but there are no churches -- not in the past, the present or future."

Human Rights Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group, accused the State Department of turning a blind eye to abuses in countries that cooperate with U.S. foreign policy. In Uzbekistan, it said, thousands of independent Muslims have been persecuted in the last five years, and Turkmenistan -- "one of the most repressive countries in the world" -- did not even make the "watch list" of probable human-rights violators.

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