The first official U.S. report on international religious freedom met with both praise for its good intentions and criticism for its diplomatic content from human-rights organizations. The report is meant to help the federal government shape foreign policy and is the first annual review required under the International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress last fall (CT, Oct. 5, 1998, p. 26).

Robert Seiple, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said lawmakers cannot afford to lose sight of the "fate of millions of people throughout the world who are suffering because of their religious faith."

Countries that engage in egregious religious persecution, such as killing, torture, imprisonment, and rape, could be subject to severe U.S. economic sanctions.

The report, gathered by U.S. employees around the world, covers 194 countries and is more than 1,000 pages long. Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Iraq are listed as some of the most extensively repressive countries.

But according to Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that promotes international freedom, many sections of the report play down the religious persecution allowed by U.S. trading partners. Freedom House criticizes the reports on China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan for leaving out crucial information about Christians targeted by government genocides and arrests.

"While some of the country descriptions can be improved," says Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, "this report [opens] an important national debate on who persecutes religious believers and what America's relationship with them should be."

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