Iraq has landed on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's "watch list" for the first time since Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.
The commission cited soaring sectarian violence, discrimination against religious minorities, arbitrary arrests, and torture as the most alarming developments. Commission Chairwoman Felice Gaer:
"Although the Sunni-dominated insurgency and other non-state actors are responsible for a substantial proportion of the sectarian violence and associated human rights violations, the Iraqi government also bears responsibility.
By engaging in human rights violations through its state security forces and in tolerating, and in some cases even facilitating, religiously based attacks and other religious freedom abuses carried out by armed Shia militias that have ties to the government itself."
A "watch list" designation is a degree below the most serious designation "country of particular concern," or CPC. That designation makes a country subject to possible U.S. sanctions.
Commissioner Gaer said the panel could designate Iraq as a CPC at any time if it determines the situation to have further deteriorated.
Other countries meriting closer observation on the watch list are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.
Meanwhile, 11 nations were labeled as the worst offenders and received "CPC" status.
They are Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Saudi Arabia was singled out for banning all forms of public religious expression other than Sunni Islam, while China was condemned for subjecting all religious communities to strict state control and repression.
Vietnam, which was taken off the list last year, was back on it this year. Commissioner Richard Land:
"The promise of broader human rights improvements has not lasted beyond Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization. Furthermore, since the CPC designation was lifted and Vietnam joined the WTO, positive religious freedom trends have for the most part stalled."
Turkey was not on the list, but the Commission expressed concern about religious freedom in that secular Muslim country, saying both Muslims and religious minorities do not have full freedom to practice their religious beliefs. The panel's findings and recommendations are not binding, but are considered by the State Department in formulating U.S. policy.