The Obama administration warned Tuesday of growing religious intolerance and violence in Arab nations undergoing popular revolts that could undermine fragile democratic transitions.
While the overthrow of longtime autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa has given millions hope for freedom it has also opened up religious and ethnic minorities to new threats, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. She urged countries not to "trade one form of repression for another" and to embrace the freedom to worship for all faiths as they embrace political pluralism for the first time in generations.
"In the Middle East and North Africa, the transitions to democracy have inspired the world but they have also exposed ethic and religious minorities to new dangers," Clinton told reporters as she unveiled the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report. "People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or faith. In other places we have seen governments stand by while sectarian violence inflamed by religious animosities tears communities apart."
"The people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy, but if they hope to consolidate their gains they cannot trade one form of repression for another," she said.
Since the beginning of the year, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all ousted longtime authoritarian rulers and pledged to move to democracies. Rebellions are also under way in Syria and Yemen. The U.S. has publicly expressed concern about post-revolt sectarian violence and the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Egypt and Libya. It has also condemned attacks on religious minorities in Syria as the government continues a months-long brutal crackdown on opponents.
In addition to highlighting concerns in those countries, the report also took aim at abuses of religious freedom in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia were identified once again as "countries of particular concern" for their records, meaning that governments there "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom." That designation can bring about U.S. sanctions, but Clinton waived sanctions against Saudi Arabia, a key regional U.S. ally that forbids the public practice of any religion other than Islam. All religious minorities in Iran, particularly Bahais, Sufis, Christians and Jews, were targeted for discrimination in Iran, the report said.