WASHINGTON (AFP) â€” Religious freedom took a turn for the worse in the last year in China, Egypt and Iran, but also in normally more tolerant countries like Jordan and Algeria, the State Department said Friday.
The State Department's annual report on religious freedoms around the world for the period between July 2007 and July 2008 also singled out North Korea again as among the worst violators of religious freedom.
But there were new concerns about Jordan and Algeria, "which traditionally have been more respectful of minority faiths," according to John Hanford III, the ambassador at large for religious freedom.
"The government's de factor and de jure policies have precipitated a decline in the status of religious freedom during this reporting period," the report said.
In February, the government began enforcing an ordinance which "makes proselytizing a criminal offense," it said.
It said that the ordinance mandates "that anyone who makes, stores or distributes printed documents, or audiovisual materials with the intent of 'shaking the faith' of a Muslim may also face a maximum of five years' imprisonment" and a fine equivalent to 7,100 dollars.
"In Jordan, a Sharia Court found a convert from Islam to Christianity guilty of apostasy, annulled his marriage, and declared him to be without any religious identity," said Hanford, who oversaw the report.
"The Jordanian government also harassed individuals and organizations based on religious affiliation," he said.
In China,"the government's repression of religious freedom intensified in some areas, including in Tibetan areas and in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," it said.
The Uighurs form an ethnic Muslim majority in Western China.
During the Olympics, Xinjiang suffered a series of violent attacks, including the most deadly which killed 16 police officers in Kashgar on August 4.
In March, violent riots erupted in Tibet which left 203 dead, according to Tibetans in exile, although Beijing spoke of 21 people killed by "rioters," saying it had killed a Tibetan rebel.
The report also said: "Some unregistered Protestant religious groups in Beijing also reported intensified harassment from government authorities in the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games."
In Egypt, the report said that "several government measures and practices undertaken during the reporting period contributed to a decline in government respect for religious freedom."
It cited in particular the restriction of the right to convert to only non-Muslims.
In Saudi Arabia, "there were incremental improvements in specific areas, such as better protection of the right to possess and use personal religious materials," it said.
Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Uzbekistan maintained the status quo. Along with China, these countries are on the State Department blacklist, or the Countries of Particular Concern, which incur sanctions.
The blacklist is renewed at the end of the year on the basis of the report.
In presenting the report, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected what she said were attempts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to criminalize "defamation" of religions, such caricatures or other images of the prophet Mohammed, which is forbidden in Islam.
The OIC represents 57 Muslim countries around the world.
"We're concerned by efforts to promote a so-called defamation of religions concept, which has been the focus of numerous resolutions passed at the United Nations," Rice said.
"Instead of protecting religion practice and promoting tolerance, this concept seeks to limit freedom of speech, and that could undermine the standards of international religious freedom," she said.