WASHINGTON — The right to exercise religion came under sustained assault around the world in 2015, according to a new report from a bipartisan United States commission, affecting Christians, Muslims and Jews, among others.
“By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last annual report in 2015,” Robert George, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), stated Monday.
He was speaking at the release of USCIRF’s annual religious-freedom report.
“At best, in most of the countries we covered,” George noted, the situation of religious freedom “failed to improve” or, worse, “spiraled downward” in 2015.
“I fear … that we’re losing the battle of ideas,” he stated in a May 2 press conference introducing the report. “We need the American people’s support on this,” he added. “The public needs to get behind this. We believe in religious freedom. It’s enshrined in the very first amendment to our Constitution.”
USCIRF is a federal, bipartisan commission that advises the State Department on religious freedom worldwide. It was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act.
One of the commission’s main tasks is to publish an annual report on the global state of religious freedom, noting the countries with the worst abuses against the freedom to practice religion.
Among the report’s recommendations is a list of countries that should be on the agency’s “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) list, or the countries where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place, either at the hand of the government or with impunity from the government.
The current CPC list includes China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Eritrea. USCIRF has also asked the State Department to designate seven more countries as CPCs: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan and Syria.
Respect for religious freedom declined in 2015 because of multiple factors, the report explained: religious violence by terror groups killing and displacing millions for their religious beliefs, governments continuing to imprison persons for their religious beliefs and growing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe and Russia.
The terror groups Islamic State and Boko Haram have killed or uprooted millions from their homes in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria in the last few years, inflicting a scourge of violence, torture and abuse on entire minority populations and contributing to a global refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, the governments in those countries have not been able to protect their religious minorities in harm’s way. Iraq and Syria have shown a “near-incapacity to protect segments of their population from ISIL and other non-state actors, as well as their complicity in fueling the sectarian tensions that have made their nations so vulnerable,” the report noted.
In Syria, the Assad regime “has been guilty of inflaming those tensions” that helped create the Islamic State, George said. The regime has been guilty of crimes against humanity committed against Sunnis and others, according to the report.
The U.S. should be a leader in accepting refugees and victims of religious persecution, the report said. The nation should set a goal of accepting 100,000 Syrian refugees and should provide sufficient funding for the vetting of these refugees. Congress should also “reauthorize the Lautenberg Amendment” to accept beleaguered Iranian religious minorities fleeing persecution by the government there, the report insisted.
In Asia, thousands of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority group of Burma, have been disenfranchised by their own government and have fled their homes, having no legal protection. There are 1 million displaced Rohingya, according to the report.
Refugees fleeing Africa, Syria and Iraq, especially from the onslaught of Islamic State and Boko Haram, either flee to surrounding countries that have become strained from the large refugee population or make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they are met with increasing hostility, especially Muslim immigrants, who face a rising tide of Islamophobia.
Muslims in Europe are harassed for wearing public symbols of their religion, such as headscarves and face cloths. They are even subject to violent attacks. Far-right political parties that profit from xenophobia against immigrants, Muslims and Jews are rising in popularity.
Furthermore, the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 “produced backlashes against Muslims by members of the wider societies, many of whom blame Muslims collectively, which is, of course, itself a terrible thing,” George said.
Laws restricting religious acts such as circumcision and halal slaughter of animals have surfaced in Denmark and Holland.
Xenophobia and hate crimes, particularly against Jews, are now being committed with “impunity” in Russia and are a problem throughout Europe, resulting in “an exponential rise in Jewish emigration from Europe,” the report stated. Jews are being targeted by secularists, far-right political parties and “Islamist extremists who sought recruits from disaffected members of Muslim communities,” George said.
Other governments, including those of China, Iran, Russia, Eritrea and North Korea, are actively persecuting religious minorities and jailing people simply for expressing their religious beliefs.
“The existence of these prisoners [of conscience], people who are being jailed, beaten, tortured simply for expressing their conscientious religious beliefs or beliefs about religion, are an indictment of every government that holds them,” George stated.
In Iran, the number of persons from religious minorities imprisoned because of their beliefs has increased under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, with Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, Christians and dissenting Shia Muslims all targeted.
In China, Bao Guohua, a Protestant pastor, and his wife received 14 and 12 years, respectively, in prison for leading an effort against the state’s desecration of churches. The bulldozing of unauthorized churches in China has become such a problem that another Protestant pastor and his wife were buried alive in their attempt to stop the bulldozing of a church: Li Jiangong survived, but his wife, Ding Cuimei, died.
In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi was jailed in 2012 on charges of “insulting Islam and religious authorities.” Just “for speaking his mind, speaking his conscience, he has been subjected to horrific abuse,” George said. Another Saudi, Ashraf Fayadh, was arrested for “promoting atheism.”
In Uzbekistan, where Islam is followed by more than 90% of the population and where religious groups must register activity with the government, more than 12,000 Muslims have been imprisoned for unsanctioned religious activity.
Another problem for religious freedom is anti-extremism laws, which are often used to crack down on religious minorities under the pretext of fighting terrorism and extremism.
In Russia, such laws have been used against Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims. The law requires no evidence for an accusation of religious violence, and so persons can be convicted and jailed simply for “proclaiming the truth or superiority” of their religion.
Government, in enforcing these anti-extremism laws, “often fuels the very extremism they are purporting to fight,” George explained, and fighting terrorism “becomes a pretext” for human-rights abuses.
This is evidenced in China where the state’s actions against the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of northwest China, “has simply fueled violence,” he noted.
Blasphemy laws against words or actions showing contempt or mockery of religion are a pernicious problem in some countries as well, most notably in Pakistan, where no evidence is required for an accusation, and the crime can be punishable by death.
Blasphemy “might be insensitive or hurtful to many,” the report’s summary stated, but “blasphemy laws are not the answer. They inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, empowering officials to enforce particular views against individuals, minorities and dissenters.”
Along with the recommendations for CPCs, the commission also has a “Tier 2” list of countries, which “are not the worst abusers,” George noted, but where there are still “serious” and “significant” abuses occurring. These countries are Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Laos, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Afghanistan.
Leaders of certain countries, such as Egypt and India, have said the right things about religious freedom and protecting religious minorities, but their administrations are either complicit in the persecution of the minorities or powerless to stop sectarian violence, the report added.
“In a number of nations, there has been a continued gap between the rhetoric of the regime and the reality on the ground,” George said, adding that “rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it is accompanied by action.”