President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all brought a new emphasis to the issue of freedom of religion around the world during 2017, says a new 2018 report from the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom, but more work, much more work, needs to be done.
“For example, in February, President Trump called freedom of religion ‘a sacred right’ and noted the need to address threats against it, especially terrorism. In his April 14 weekly address, the president expressed hope for a future ‘where good people of all faiths, Christians and Muslims and Jewish and Hindu, can follow their hearts and worship according to their conscience.’
“In June, Vice President Pence repeatedly stressed that the Trump administration would ‘condemn persecution of any faith in any place at any time’ and that ‘protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority’ of this administration. In August, then Secretary Tillerson stated: ‘Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root … The Trump administration has committed to addressing these conditions in part by advancing international religious freedom around the world,” explained the recently released report.
Others making related comments included Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who promised the U.S. “will not ignore violations of human rights, including the right to religious freedom,” and even the December 2017 National Security Strategy document reflected that commitment.
It promises to champion American values, including by “supporting and advancing religious freedom – America’s first freedom.”
But the commission’s report, a document prepared annually to update the status of religious persecution around the globe, lists 16 nations as Tier 1 religious rights offenders, most appearing on the list again and again.
Those include Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Most are dominated by either Muslim or Communist leadership.
Those “countries of particular concern” are identified as any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violations, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious.
Tier 2 nations, those where governments “engaged in or tolerated servere violations but are deemed to not meet all the criteria of the CPC test,” included the 12 countries of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, all Muslim organizations, were identified as “entities of particular concern.”
Those are “nonsovereign” entities that have significant political power and territorial control, and violate religious rights at will.
“Sadly, religious freedom conditions deteriorated in many countries in 2017, often due to increasing authoritarianism or under the guise of countering terrorism,” said USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark. “Yet there is also reason for optimism 20 years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. The importance of this foundational right is appreciated more now than ever, and egregious violations are less likely to go unnoticed.”
He continued, “In its second year, the Trump administration should build on stated commitments to elevate religious freedom as a priority in our foreign policy and national security strategy by vigorously implementing IRFA, the Frank Wolf Act, and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to pressure egregious violators.
“USCIRF also urges the administration to prioritize seeking the release of religious prisoners of conscience abroad, and to work closely with international partners in efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief for all,” he said.
The commission, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, is the first of its kind in the world. It reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of State, and Congress.
Its 2018 report notes one particular worry is the presence of blasphemy laws, common in Muslim majority nations, which are incompatible with “international human rights principles.
“These laws exist in at least 69 countries worldwide and should be repealed,” the report said.
Another concern is the specific individuals, like American Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested in Turkey and has been in jail for a year and a half already on charges that lack evidence, and a third theme is the fact that women often are the victims of religious discrimination.
“While religious freedom violations in many parts of the world continue to be grave, there are real reasons for optimism 20 years after the U.S. Congress’ landmark passage of [International Religious Freedom Act]. Severe violations still occur but are less likely to go unnoticed,” the report said.
“The U.S. government, once nearly alone in this effort, has an increasing number of partners with which to work on freedom of religiou abroad, including international organization entities, foreign government bodies, and a global parliamentary network.”
The report said, “The media and civil society in the United States and abroad are more focused on international religious freedom issues than ever before.”
The report documents each nation’s problems, such as that in China, authorities are advancing their “so-called ‘sinicization’ of religion” by using torture against leaders to push all religious organizations into the embrace of the government’s communism.
In Iran, the government was enforcing “official interpretations of religion online, and the government’s promises to address religious freedom violations went unfulfilled.”
It also cited North Korea’s approach toward religion as “among the most hostile and repressive in the world.”
For generations, North Koreans have been taught their leaders are deities, and so “freedom of religion or belief does not exist in North Korea.”