WASHINGTON — Religious-freedom advocates praised the U.S. State Department’s annual international religious-freedom report published last week, but insisted that words must be followed by action.
“We at USCIRF applaud the State Department for the excellent work that went into this report and its efforts to encourage countries around the world to adopt policies that respect this fundamental right,” stated Father Thomas Reese, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises the State Department.
However, he added, the U.S. must “not miss this opportunity to strengthen our commitments with effective actions.”
“The administration must do more than occasionally raise issues of concern,” stated U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House subcommittee on global human rights.
He added that “they must use targeted sanctions, visa denials and other measures to address a global crisis and hold responsible individuals accountable for religious persecution.”
Last Wednesday’s religious-freedom report, which documented abuses in 200 countries and territories as well as steps taken to protect the freedoms of various religions, marked anti-blasphemy laws as one of the top concerns for religious freedom.
Around one-fourth of the world’s countries have anti-blasphemy laws, noted David Saperstein, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, citing Pew Research numbers. Such laws have a “chilling, sometimes deadly, effect,” he added.
This is because such laws are routinely abused by governments or sectarian mobs to persecute religious minorities who are not members of the official or majority state religion.
“In many other Islamic societies, societal passions associated with blasphemy — deadly enough in and of themselves — are abetted by a legal code that harshly penalizes blasphemy and apostasy,” the report stated.
“False accusations, often lodged in pursuit of personal vendettas or for the personal gain of the accuser, are not uncommon. Mob violence as a result of such accusations is disturbingly common,” it added. In Pakistan, for instance, there is no punishment for making a false accusation of blasphemy, and no evidence is required to bring an accusation to court.
Also, governments use the harsh consequences of such laws to crack down on minority religions.
Pakistan currently has the highest number of people on death row because of blasphemy convictions, including Asia Bibi, a mother of five who allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad. She was accused by her neighbor of the crime in 2009 and convicted in 2010.
USCIRF praised the State Department for bringing “additional attention to the pernicious consequences of blasphemy laws.”
It also commended the State Department for placing 10 countries on its “countries of particular concern” (CPC) list, the worst violators of religious freedom, where governments are either actively persecuting religious minorities or are powerless to stop religiously motivated sectarian violence and terrorism.
Those countries are China, Burma, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Seven more countries should be added to the CPC list, the commission maintained: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Vietnam.
The U.S. has authority to take action against the countries on the CPC list, in order to hold them accountable for their violations of religious freedom. However, the agency is also permitted to waive action against CPC designees in certain cases, and they have done so for four countries, USCIRF noted.
This has undermined the very purpose of the list, they added, and gives “little incentive for CPC-designated countries to make improvements,” so the waivers should be time-restricted.
One of the actions the U.S. can take is to “negotiate a binding agreement” with one of these countries to pressure them to improve their human-rights situations. The U.S. should do so with Burma and Vietnam, USCIRF added.
Ultimately, the report “shows that the world is experiencing a religious-freedom crisis that directly challenges U.S. interests around the world,” Smith stated.
However, he added, “the decision to downplay attacks on religious believers in Vietnam, Pakistan, India and Cuba, while expanding diplomatic, economic or military ties with these countries is tragic for those who suffer abuses every day.”
Vietnam and Pakistan are both countries that should be on the CPC list but aren’t, he said.
In Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities are not sufficiently protected from religiously motivated violence, the report said.
And in Vietnam, the government meddles too much in religion out of “national security and social unity” concerns, the report added, forcing all religions to register and harassing the religious groups that do not.
Meanwhile in Cuba, “religious-freedom conditions and human-rights conditions overall deteriorated” after the U.S. reopened formal diplomatic ties with Cuba, Smith added, and the State Department should have been harder on them in the report.
While the U.S. continues to dialogue with India, religious freedom must be a vital part of the conversation, Smith said, because “the administration cannot shy away from the fact that in India religious minorities face ongoing violence, forced conversations and discrimination with little serious governmental efforts made to stop it.”