Source AP ©

Religious freedom deteriorates in Iraq

Despite the U.S. military buildup in Iraq religious freedom has sharply deterioriated there over the past year due to the continuing insurgency and secular violence.

The department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom finds that worshippers of all faiths, as well as non-believers, are targeted for attacks and that such violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

"The ongoing insurgency significantly harmed the ability of all religious believers to practice their faith," says the executive summary of the report obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its formal release by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"While the presence of varying levels of lawlessness in certain areas permitted criminal gangs, terrorists, and insurgents to victimize citizens, and while this affected persons of all ethnicities and religious groups in such areas, many individuals from various religious groups were targeted because of their religious identity or their secular leanings," it says.

The report finds that members of all religions are "victims of harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, and killings" nand that "frequent sectarian violence included attacks on places of worship."

It says that Muslims who practice less strict versions of their faith suffer from "conservative and extremist Islamic elements (that) exert tremendous pressure on society to conform to their interpretations of Islam's precepts."

At the same time, it says "non-Muslims (are) especially vulnerable to pressure and violence, because of their minority status and, often, because of the lack of a protective a tribal structure."

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