Each year, the United States assesses religious freedoms around the world and lists those countries with the worst records of religious persecution. This year's State Department report has sparked indignation from the nations named, but it is also stirring concern over countries that didn't make the list.
Human rights groups charge that some of the most egregious oppressors of religious minorities aren't listed because Washington didn't want to offend members of its antiterrorism coalition. This is worrisome, too, they say, because some are persecuting Muslims. "The irony is that getting too close to countries that crush religious freedom may be more dangerous for America now, ... particularly when the religion crushed is Islam," says Tom Malinowski, of Human Rights Watch.
Seven nations were named "countries of particular concern": Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, and Sudan. All but Korea were on last year's list.
The government's own Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote Secretary of State Colin Powell in August, recommending that Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Laos, as well as North Korea, be added. Human Rights Watch points to Uzbekistan as a prime offender.
The report used strong language to describe the situations in these countries without listing them. On Saudi Arabia, for example, it says, "Freedom of religion does not exist," and it details extreme violations against non-Muslims and minority Muslims. It recognizes that Uzbekistan commits "abuses against many [nonviolent] devout Muslims for their religious beliefs," and systematically tortures many.
China - a coalition member - is listed. But Human Rights Watch calls the report's on the Muslim region of northwest China "strikingly less critical" than last year, despite arbitrary arrests and executions. Laila al-Marayati, a Muslim former member of the US commission, warns of a "collision course" between the war on terrorism and US commitment to religious rights.