By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) A religious freedom watchdog panel has added Egypt to its list of the worst violators of religious liberty, citing attacks on Coptic Christians that occurred surrounding the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak.
"The Egyptian government engaged in and tolerated religious freedom violations both before and after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which released its report Thursday (April 28).
"In his waning months, religious freedom conditions were rapidly deteriorating and since his departure, we've seen nothing to indicate that these conditions have improved."
Members of the independent commission also continued their criticism of the Obama administration for not making religious freedom a higher priority.
"President Obama's administration has yet to break from the practice of previous administrations of keeping the issue of religious freedom on the margins of U.S. foreign policy," the report states.
Leo acknowledged the recent confirmation of the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and said he hopes it will lead to "meaningful actions" in the near future.
Commissioners, who are appointed by the president and members of Congress, listed a total of 14 countries that they recommend the State Department designate as "countries of particular concern." The department currently lists eight such countries, a number that remains unchanged since President George W. Bush left office.
Countries on the State Department's list include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
In addition to Egypt, USCIRF says the list should also include Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
State Department spokesman Evan Owen differed with the commission's analysis, saying his department issues reports on both religious freedom and anti-Semitism, and now has special envoys for both areas. He said the department will consider USCIRF's recommendations as it weighs updating its list of the worst violators of religious freedom.
"It's a long process and with the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom, we expect it to be a more streamlined process in the future," he said.
Commissioners continue to hope that Pakistan and other nations will rescind anti-blasphemy laws that they believe lead to violent violations of religious freedom. The panel's 379-page report was dedicated to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani minister for religious minorities who was assassinated in March after challenging such laws.
"Pakistan is arguably the most glaring omission to the State Department's CPC list, as the government is both responsible for and tolerates egregious violations of religious freedom," said Commissioner Nina Shea.
USCIRF also designates "watch list countries," nations whose violations do not merit a listing as the worst offenders but nevertheless require monitoring. This year's list includes Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.