Religious freedom under increasing threat worldwide, study says


More countries around the world are clamping down on religious freedom and harassment and intimidation of religious groups has surged, according to a new study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

The report tracked changes in religious tolerance through the middle of 2010. Though the findings are based on research done long before the recent eruption of widespread protests over insults to Islam, they shed new light on rising tension over faith

In every region on the globe, government restrictions, hostility or both were on the rise against religious groups, the sweeping study found. Signs of the trend eyed by researchers included governments banning particular faiths or prohibiting conversions, mob violence against religious groups and harassment over religious attire. Many such attacks or restrictions were levied against religious minorities.

Intolerance increased not only in countries with simmering religious tension such as Indonesia and Syria, but in relatively less restrictive countries such as the United States and Switzerland, the study found. Countries where governments that favor one religion over others were especially likely to have hostilities.

Two of three countries studied had increased state restrictions on religious groups in 2009 and 2010, putting three of four people worldwide under governments that heavily restrict religious practices. Nearly half of the countries in the study were strained by growing hostility over religion, researchers found.

Harassment of Christians, Jews, Buddhists and several other groups, including Sikhs, Bahais and folk religions, spread to the highest number of countries measured since Pew first began tracking the phenomenon three years earlier; intimidation of Muslims also increased.

Government restrictions on religion and hostility involving it were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, most notably in Egypt, but the study was based on information gathered before the "Arab Spring" uprisings erupted across North Africa and the Middle East, which have reshaped the region.

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Pakistan declares Friday a day of protest against anti-Islam film


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan continued to seethe Wednesday over the release in the U.S. of a movie trailer mocking Islam, as legions of protesters rallied in several large cities for a sixth day and the government signaled its own discontent by declaring Friday as a national day “of peaceful protest.”

Officials said the move was meant to show the government's solidarity with the Muslim world and its anger over the film, which depicts the prophet Muhammad as a womanizer and a thug. Friday will be observed as a national holiday, and protests are expected to be held across the country.

“The message we want to convey to the international community by observing Friday as a protest day ... is that we cannot tolerate any kind of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad,” said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira.

Though U.S. leaders have denounced the film, Pakistanis have continued to channel their anger toward the American government. Throngs of protesters in Karachi and Lahore in recent days have tried to reach U.S. consulates in those cities.

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Egypt seeks arrest of Terry Jones, 7 others tied to anti-Islam film

Anti-American protest in Chennai, India

CAIRO -- Egypt’s prosecutor general referred seven Egyptians Christians living in the United States and Florida-based Pastor Terry Jones to court for trial on charges that they offended Islam in connection with an anti-Muslim film that has triggered protests around the globe.

The seven Egyptians -- identified by state media as Morris Sadek, Morkos Aziz Khalil, Fekry Abdelmessieh, Nabil Adib Bassida, Nahed Metwally, Nader Farid Nicola and Elia Bassily, who is also known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula -- were also accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad, inciting sectarian strife in Egypt and threatening the country's independence and peace, according to a state-run news agency.

The prosecutor general requested that the eight defendants be arrested by Interpol and handed over to Egyptian authorities.

The news agency said prosecutors decided to charge the defendants after reviewing accusations that the defendants helped in the production and online promotion of movies defaming Islam and Muhammad.

One of the films, "Innocence of Muslims," has sparked outrage in many nations with large Islamic populations. It portrays Muslims as child molesters and thugs.

Authorities issued arrest warrants against all defendants. No trial date was announced. The charges could result in a death sentence.

Nakoula, who lives in Cerritos, reportedly has denied involvement with "Innocence of Muslims" and has gone into hiding.

Jones, who expressed support for the film, is a pastor of a nondenominational Christian church in Gainesville, Fla. He previously angered Muslims across the world by burning a copy of the Koran.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have repeatedly distanced themselves from the movie and its producers. Last week, the Maspero Youth Union, a group of Christian activists, joined peaceful protests to denounce the movie, saying it was “provoking and offensive” to Islam as well as the sanctity of religion.


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Photo: Muslims burn the U.S. flag and shout anti-American slogans Tuesday in front of the U.S. Embassy in Chennai, India, as protests around the globe continued against the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims." Credit: Associated Press

Pakistani protests against anti-Islamic film leave at least 1 dead

This post has been updated. See the note below.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Protests in Pakistan against a film mocking the prophet Muhammad intensified Monday as demonstrators set ablaze buildings in the northwest and hurled stones at riot police in the southern city of Karachi, the nation’s commercial hub.

At least one protester was killed when about 800 demonstrators clashed with police in the northwest region of Upper Dir, along the Afghan border, local authorities said. Protesters torched a press club and the homes and offices of government officials, said Muhammad Mukhtiar, a local police officer. Five people were arrested.

Police did not say how the demonstrator was killed.

PHOTOS: Protests over anti-Islam film spread

In Karachi, hundreds of students affiliated with a fundamentalist organization, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, set on fire American flags, burned tires in the street and threw stones at police, authorities said. Police fired tear gas at demonstrators and arrested at least 40 people.

On Sunday, demonstrators in Karachi, the country's largest city, tried to storm the U.S. Consulate and set ablaze three police vans and a bus.

Other demonstrations against the film also broke out in Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, and the northwest city of Peshawar. Leaders of Pakistan’s religious right-wing parties have promised to step up protests across the country this week.

[Updated  9:40 a.m., Sept. 17: With the protests ratcheting up, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Ashraf ordered the immediate blocking of YouTube, the website on which a video trailer of the film has been posted. According to a statement issued by Ashraf’s office, he issued the order after YouTube “refused to heed the advice of the government of Pakistan to remove the blasphemous film from its site.”

YouTube will remain blocked in Pakistan until the trailer is removed from the site, according to the statement.]


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4 protesters reportedly slain in clashes at U.S. Embassy in Yemen

SANA, Yemen -- Hundreds of Yemeni protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Sana and started fires on Thursday, another eruption of violence in a series of protests sweeping the Middle East and elsewhere over an online trailer for a film mocking the Islamic prophet.

Four protesters were killed and more than 30 were injured, some of them severely, after security forces fired gunshots and lobbed tear gas into the air in an attempt to scatter the demonstrators, a Yemeni security source said on condition of anonymity.

Infuriated protesters smashed security office windows and broke past barriers, hurling stones at buildings and setting two cars on fire outside. Demonstrators tore down the American flag and lifted a white banner saying, “There is no god but Allah and his messenger is Muhammad.” Graffiti sprayed on the walls read, “For the prophet.”

PHOTOS: Protesters attack U.S. embassies, consulate

"I went to this demonstration to defend my religion and to denounce this crime, which we consider a great violation against the divinity of Islam and its symbols," said protester Mohamed Ahmed.

Others demanded that the embassy be shuttered. “It is not the first time they insulted the Koran and Islam, and I think it is about time to close the U.S. Embassy and kick out its ambassador,” another demonstrator told The Times.

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Envisioning a post-Assad Syria as civil war grinds on

Assad posters near aleppo
With no end in sight for the bloody fratricide ravaging Syria, and with the world's most powerful nations bitterly divided over what to do next, U.S. and European diplomats have redirected their efforts from trying to halt the civil war to planning for a new Syria once it is over.

GlobalFocusThe blueprints emerging are necessarily vague, given that no one yet knows how or when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime will fall or what constellation of political opponents will replace it. The proposals also lack any common strategy, reflecting discordant views among advocates of a free Syria on how best to aid the outgunned rebels. Washington is more wary than its allies of sending arms that could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have infiltrated the civil war to gain a new foothold in the Middle East.

French President Francois Hollande this week called on rebel factions to cobble together a transitional government that the international community can officially recognize and work with. But U.S. diplomats and political analysts argue that Assad's opponents are too fractious to put forward a united front or cohesive strategy for the war's end game. And with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney equally loath to endorse bolder action on Syria -- fearing another costly, faraway conflict -- responsibility for contingency planning has fallen to academia instead of the Pentagon.

On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace issued "The Day After" plan for a post-Assad Syria. The 133-page statement of goals and principles for a new Syria was six months in the making. It was produced by 45 Syrian opposition figures brought together by the State Department-funded institute's Middle East experts and partners from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. It is long on institution-building wonk-speak and short on how the opposition is supposed to get to the post-Assad era. But analysts hailed it as a worthy undertaking even as government and rebel forces are mired in protracted battles to control key areas of Damascus and Aleppo.

No representatives of the Free Syrian Army fighting the regime were party to the post-Assad project, said Steven Heydemann, a senior advisor on Middle East initiatives who coordinated the talks among Syrian exiles, defectors and regime opponents who managed to travel abroad or participate via video linkup.

"The group very sensibly recognized there was no way to anticipate how the transition would happen," instead focusing on identifying the challenges that would confront the next leadership whether Assad flees, negotiates an exit or is deposed in a palace coup, Heydemann said. However the Assad dynasty ends, he noted, Syrians will have to grapple with divisive questions on how to treat those accused of war crimes, deter revenge killings and get the economy and social services back in working order.

While the United States is holding firm to its policy of providing only nonlethal aid to the rebels, Heydemann said, Washington could play a more effective role in coordinating other outside support. He pointed to the mounting incidents of Islamic extremists waging strikes against the Assad regime for their own purposes and weaponry coming in from autocratic supporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia as giving "a Wild West quality" to help for the underdog rebels.

"The United States is very concerned that support from outside for elements of the Syrian opposition not lead to strengthening of Al Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalist forces that becomes problematic in the postwar process," said Charles Ries, a career diplomat heading Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy.  "But our reluctance [to supply arms] has paradoxically caused the division of the Syrian opposition and has encouraged those Islamist elements to find their own sources of support and influence."

The task eluding the United States and its allies is uniting the disparate opposition forces inside and outside Syria into a cohesive leadership that they can support and ratchet up the pressure on Assad, Ries said. 

Bilal Y. Saab, a Syria expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, shares other analysts' concerns that Islamic militants are filling the vacuum left by a hands-off U.S. policy toward the rebels. But it would be "ill-advised," he said, for the United States to recognize a transitional government that isn't broadly inclusive of the myriad ethnic, sectarian, religious and political factions in Syria.

"This administration is nowhere near doing that," Saab said of the prospects for a representative rebel leadership.

That said, initiatives like "The Day After" are laudable for keeping the Syrian opposition forces and their allies focused on the daunting challenges of building a stable nation once the civil war ends, Saab said.

"This is the most comprehensive effort by a U.S. entity to date to think about scenarios for after Assad," Saab said of the peace institute project. "It's not putting the cart before the horse."


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Photo: A rebel supporter treads on posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad lining the floor of a Free Syrian Army office in the town of Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. Fighting has ground into a bloody impasse as international mediators differ on how to end the 17-month-old conflict. In Washington, the U.S. presidential election has relegated the Syrian civil war  to the diplomatic sidelines. Credit: Phil Moore / AFP/Getty Images

German lawmakers work on legislation to protect circumcision

Rabbi metzger

BERLIN -- Israel’s top rabbi is in Berlin to rally support among German political leaders regarding legislation to protect the practice of ritual circumcision in Germany, which was called into question earlier this year by a controversial court ruling that Jewish and Muslim leaders said threatened their religious freedom.

In June, after a Muslim boy suffered health complications from the practice, a court in the western German city of Cologne declared nonmedical circumcision to be criminal because it causes children bodily harm. Amid outrage from some religious groups, lawmakers quickly passed a resolution promising legislation guaranteeing legal protection for circumcision.

This week, officials have been meeting with Yona Metzger, chief rabbi of Israel's Ashkenazi Jews, to craft legislation on the issue. But the stakes were raised further Tuesday after a doctor in the southern German city of Hof, in Bavaria, reportedly filed charges with local prosecutors against a rabbi there to stop the practice. Prosecutors must still decide whether to act on the charges, which the Council of European Rabbis described as a “grave affront to religious freedom.”

“This latest development … underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected,” the council said in a statement on its website.

Though the Cologne court ruling applies only to that jurisdiction, the decision immediately called into question the legality of circumcision nationwide. The German Medical Assn. told doctors not to perform circumcisions. Even some doctors in neighboring Austria and Switzerland were advised to stop performing the procedure until legal questions were answered.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that banning circumcisions would make Germany a “laughing stock.” But finding a compromise hasn’t been so simple, with opponents of the practice saying that what they see as protecting the rights of children should come above religious freedom.

The European rabbis’ council says that using anesthesia or having a doctor perform circumcision instead of a mohel would not be in accordance with Judaism. Metzger told reporters Tuesday that he suggested establishing a school for mohels in Germany with both religious training from rabbis and medical training from doctors in case of complications from circumcision.


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Photo: Israeli Rabbi Yona Metzger speaks to reporters in Berlin on Tuesday about the debate in Germany over circumcision. Credit: Kay Nietfeld / EPA

Gaza Strip beauty salon damaged in bomb attack

GAZA CITY -- Islamic extremists are suspected in the bombing Wednesday of a beauty salon at the Nusseirat refugee camp, officials said.

No one was hurt because the shop was closed, officials said, but the building suffered substantial damage.

It was the first such bombing in Gaza in more than two years, following a crackdown by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, against smaller groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. Such groups had targeted beauty salons, Internet cafes and churches.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the most recent attack.

The explosion comes a week after Hamas released two leaders of one of the Gaza-based extremist groups, Hisham Saidny, 56, and his deputy, Mahmoud Talib.


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Pope's butler to stand trial in scandal over leaked Vatican documents

Pope butler
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.

VATICAN CITY -- The butler who served Pope Benedict XVI has been ordered to stand trial by a Vatican judge in the alleged pilfering of hundreds of confidential documents from the papal apartments and passing of them to an Italian journalist.

Paolo Gabriele, 45, will stand trial in a Vatican tribunal in the fall on charges of aggravated theft, along with Claudio Sciarpeletti, 49, a computer technician in the offices of the Holy See who is charged with aiding and abetting the butler.

Gabriele, the indictment alleges, stole the pope’s papers because he said he felt the need to root out “evil and corruption in the church.” Gabriele was arrested May 23, shortly after the publication of a bestselling book that reproduced many internal letters and papers that seemed to indicate not only a power struggle and backbiting between factions within the church, but also corruption and price-fixing in purchasing for the Vatican city-state.

He was held in a cell in the Vatican police barracks before being transferred to house arrest in July. As a member of what is known as the papal household, Gabriele, a layman, lives with his wife and children inside Vatican City.

Gabriele’s attorneys have said that he cooperated with the authorities and that he acted alone, despite a barrage of news reports in the Italian media saying that a number of insiders had become whistle-blowers eager to shed light on unsavory goings-on within Vatican walls.

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India reacts with grief, outrage over Wisconsin killing of Sikhs

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NEW DELHI -- India reacted with grief and outrage at the news that at least six Sikhs were killed when a gunman attacked them Sunday in their Wisconsin temple as they prayed and prepared food.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, himself a Sikh, said in a statement Monday that he was shocked and saddened by the news and extended his condolences to the families of the victims.

“India stands in solidarity with all the peace-loving Americans who have condemned this violence,” he said, adding that he hoped “such violent acts are not repeated in the future.”

PHOTOS: Gunman opened fire at Sikh temple

On Sunday, a gunman said to be tattooed, white and in his 40s opened fire on worshippers at a suburban Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Oak Creek, Wisc., before he was shot dead by police. His motives were not clear, although local police labeled it a case of “domestic terrorism.” Initial reports were that he acted alone. The FBI has launched an investigation.

India has a growing problem with gun violence, and ranks second worldwide in absolute numbers of civilian guns at 40 million, according to, a website hosted by the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney in Australia. However, guns and ammunition are strictly regulated in India and their numbers and use pales beside America’s estimated 270 million firearms. India has more than 3 guns for every 100 people, compared with about 89 guns per 100 Americans, the world leaders.

“The gun culture in America is a bit disturbing,” said Rohan Sabharwal, 23, a Sikh dressed in an orange turban shopping in a Delhi market. “It’s a sad, regrettable thing to have this happen.”

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