World briefs: (7/31/12)

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U.S. releases religion report

WASHINGTON -- Religious minorities were targeted across the globe in 2011, according to a U.S. government report on the state of religious freedom.

The State Department's annual compilation, released Monday, highlighted a few narrow openings in unlikely places -- transitional Libya and closed-off Myanmar, for example -- but it also criticized some traditional U.S. allies for backsliding when it came to protecting the freedom to worship.

Europe in particular was chided for failing to keep pace with its growing ethnic and religious diversity, with the report saying that the demographic change is sometimes accompanied by "intolerance toward people considered 'the other.' "

Religious freedom also was a fraught subject in the so-called Arab Spring rebellions, where many of the uprisings and transitions have taken on sectarian undertones, a trend now evident in the 16-month-old Syrian revolt.

Death sentences for fraud

TEHRAN, Iran -- In the first sentences to be handed down in a $2.6 billion embezzlement case, an Iranian court ordered the death penalty for four people in the fraud that was uncovered in a network of Iranian banks last year, Iranian state media reported Monday.

The four were among 39 suspects who were convicted in what the Iranian authorities have described as the biggest financial swindle in the country's history.

The case had political significance for Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose conservative opponents in Parliament tried to tie his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, and other associates to the main suspect, Amir Mansour Aria, a businessman who owns at least 35 companies.

Iran sanctions defended

TUNIS, Tunisia -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday called for more time to allow sanctions aimed at Iran to work and refuted statements by top Israeli officials that the sanctions were doing nothing to stop Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. Panetta, who is visiting Tunisia as part of a five-day trip through the Middle East and North Africa, said that although the results of the sanctions "may not be obvious at the moment," they were hurting Iran's economy and forcing the country's leadership to look for a diplomatic solution.

Punk rockers apologize

MOSCOW -- Three members of Russian all-female punk group Pussy Riot facing seven years in jail for a political protest act inside Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral apologized Monday for offending religious sensibilities.

While pleading not guilty to charges of hooliganism, the defendants said the performance in February carried political and cultural aims and didn't intend to insult anyone, according to a statement read out by their counsel at the start of their trial in Moscow's Khamovniki District Court.

Also in the world . . .

India's electrical grid suffered a major systemic failure Monday morning, affecting at least six northern states and the capital, and an estimated 360 million people; by late afternoon, service was about 75 percent restored across the region. ... The slaying of newly arrived Venezuela Ambassador Olga Fonseca -- who was found strangled and trussed with wire in her bedroom Friday -- in Kenya has led to the arrest of the embassy's first secretary, Dwight Saragay. ... More than 30 people were killed in southern India on Monday morning when the train coach they were traveling in caught fire.

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