The United States on Monday accused Egypt, China and European nations of harming religious freedom, citing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, laws banning Muslim veils and attacks on Coptic Christians.
“In times of transition, the situation of religious minorities in these societies comes to the forefront,” the State Department wrote, in its first report on religious rights since last year’s Arab Spring revolts.
“Some members of society who have long been oppressed seek greater freedom and respect for their rights while others fear change. Those differing aspirations can exacerbate existing tensions,” it warned.
The report which details the situation in 2011 noted that in Egypt, although the Arab country’s interim military leaders had made gestures towards greater inclusiveness, sectarian tensions and violence had increased.
It denounced “both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks.”
The report cited an attack in October last year in which 25 people, mostly Copts, were killed when Egyptian security forces cracked down on a protest outside the national radio and television station.
“To date, government officials have not been held accountable for their actions, and there were indications in early 2012 of mounting Coptic emigration,” it added.
The State Department also signaled “a marked deterioration during 2011 in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom in China.
“In the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas, this included increased restrictions on religious practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries,” it said.
In a surprise twist, the report warned that European nations undergoing major demographic shifts have seen “growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’“
The report complains of a “rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others.”
Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was to comment on the report later Monday, met Egypt’s new President Mohammed Mursi to urge him to respect the rights of all Egyptians.
She also held two hours of private talks with Christian leaders to hear their concerns about life under the new Egyptian leadership, much of which is drawn like Mursi from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
The report also criticized a law passed by the Hungarian parliament that “regulates registration of religious organizations and requires a political vote in parliament to secure recognition.
“The law went into effect on January 1, 2012, reducing the number of recognized religious groups from over 300 to fewer than 32,” it noted.
Belgium and France have outraged many Muslims with laws against full veils, such as the niqab worn by many women in Saudi Arabia or the Afghan burqa.
The French ban came into force in April 2011 and prohibits covering one’s face in public, while the Belgian law went into effect last July.
Violations in France are punishable by a fine of up to 150 euros ($190) or a period of citizenship training.
U.S. President Barack Obama fiercely criticized European moves to ban the veil in a major speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009.
But in Europe, where many voters feel large Muslim immigrant populations are not integrating well and that Islam poses a threat to women’s rights, many see France and Belgium as leading the way on this issue.