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Religious Freedom In The Mideast

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In recent testimony before Congress, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said that President Barack Obama set the tone and policy for his administration regarding the importance of religious freedom when he gave his historic speech in Cairo in June:

"He said that people in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based on the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive."

Mr. Posner said that there is a range of troubling problems involving religious tolerance and liberty in the Middle East. He highlighted difficulties in three countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Posner said freedom of religion is not recognized or protected, and for non-Muslims there is no ability to practice their religion in public. He noted that Saudi Shi'a also face significant religious discrimination.

In Egypt, respect for religious freedom has declined over the last 3 years. In particular, Mr. Posner voiced concern over the Egyptian government's "insufficient action" in protecting Egypt's Coptic Christian population.

Assistant Secretary of State Posner said that in Iran, "There is a broader pattern of disrespect for human rights, intensified after the [June presidential] election with crushing of demonstrations, imprisonment of people, detention, and mistreatment:"

"But the respect for religious freedom in Iran is also a serious problem -- the disrespect – and it continues to deteriorate. The government's rhetoric and actions against all non-Shia religious groups, particularly the Baha'is, the Sufi, evangelical Christians and Jews, is something that simply can't be tolerated."

Assistant Secretary of State Posner made it clear the United States will continue to speak out against human rights violations, including religious intolerance and discrimination, in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East. He cited U.S. support for a recent U.N. General Assembly committee resolution calling on Iran to fully respect its human rights obligations by abolishing torture and arbitrary imprisonment, as well as executions including stoning, carried out without due process of law.

The resolution also calls on Iran to cooperate with UN Special Rapporteurs, which have been repeatedly denied access to Iran despite multiple U.N. requests. Mr. Posner said, "It is really important that we be out there publicly. It's important to the people of Iran that they know that we're out there publicly. ... We have to keep pushing these things."