WASHINGTON — As the U.S. State Department releases its annual global religious-freedom report, observers say that the government must take more action to fight persecution and secure religious liberty around the world.
“The world is not a great place at the moment for religious liberty, and we need to be doing something,” said Robert George, vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Speaking to CNA July 28, he stressed that “three-quarters of the world live under regimes that either are themselves routine violators of the religious freedom of their citizens or who stand by and permit thugs and mobs and terrorists to act with impunity.”
George’s comments came in response to the July 28 release of the 2013 "Report on International Religious Freedom."
“Today of all days, we acknowledge a basic truth: Religious freedom is human freedom,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry upon releasing the report.
“We have a long way to go, when governments kill, detain or torture people based on a religious belief,” he continued. “And when 75% of the world’s population still lives in countries that don’t respect religious freedoms, let me tell you: We have a long journey ahead of us.”
The U.S. State Department is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to release the annual report, which details the state of religious freedom around the world. It also designates nations with “severe violations” of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), opening the door to consequences including trade and funding sanctions.
The 2013 report designates nine countries as “Countries of Particular Concern”: Turkmenistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan is the first addition to the list of CPCs since 2006. Kerry pointed to the torture and detention of people in the country for their beliefs, restriction of Protestant and Shiite Muslim groups and the prohibition of wearing religious clothing or distributing religious materials.
The report also draws attention to the displacement of religious minorities in Burma, state oppression of religion in North Korea and brutality enacted by non-state actors such as individuals, communities and militant groups such as al Qaeda in Middle Eastern countries, among other offenses.
It also highlights rising anti-Semitism in France and other European countries.
Kerry emphasized that the “effort isn’t about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth,” but, instead, to make grounded changes and take “action that helps to change the reality on the ground and actually help people.”
However, some religious-freedom advocates felt that the State Department fell short in its designations, as well as in its general action on defending global religious freedom.
One such critic was Katrina Lantos Swett, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent advisory commission that investigates religious freedom around the world and gives its recommendations to the Department of State.
The commission released its own annual report in April, calling on the State Department to also designate Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam as “Countries of Particular Concern.” These recommendations were not followed by the department.
Lantos Swett said in a July 29 statement that, while they welcome “the expansion of the CPC list to include Turkmenistan, a country USCIRF has recommended for designation since 2004,” the Department of State’s actions do not go far enough.
She explained that “there were disappointing omissions on the CPC list, such as Pakistan,” a country that “represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as CPCs.”
The State Department’s report this year details a number of violations throughout Pakistan that meet the threshold for designation as a "Country of Particular Concern," yet the country did not receive the designation, she said.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., an architect of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, commented that the State Department should also have taken stronger action against Vietnam’s restrictions on religious freedom.
“Vietnam should without a doubt be on the sanctions list for its systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom — but it is glaringly absent,” said Smith in a July 28 statement, noting that while the report listed the country’s “systematic and egregious abuses,” it was not added to the "Countries of Particular Concern" list.
Smith also said for some countries on the list, such as China, “this designation has become a mere label, with no real consequences for bilateral relations or for those officials who continue to violate the rights of China’s religious groups.”
Permitting these violations of religious freedom without strong consequences, the congressman said, allow “China’s model of repression to go unchallenged, stymieing the advance of democracy and freedom” in the country.
Smith also urged the U.S. government to increase its efforts in Nigeria, where the radical group Boko Haram continues its violent attacks against Christians and moderate Muslims. The group kidnapped more the 200 schoolgirls in April, and the girls have not been located.
Having recently designated Boko Haram as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Smith said, the U.S. government must now follow up with action to “investigate, identify and punish those who provide support of all kinds to this group” and to help protect religious freedom and human rights in Nigeria.