Religious persecution is getting worse in terms of depth and breadth of violations, and many assaults have become so frightening that the less terrifying incidents are going unnoticed, according to the latest US religious freedom report.
"The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations," acccording to the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "The blatant assaults have become so frightening – attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion."
A year ago, then Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was committing genocide, the report notes. This was the first time since Darfur in 2004 that a U.S. administration proclaimed an ongoing campaign as genocide. "ISIS seeks to bring its barbaric worldview to reality through violence and genocide cloaked in a distortion of Islam. While the world has come to know ISIS and expects no better, there are members of the United Nations Security Council whose assaults on religious freedom are less violent, but no less insidious," the report says.
Callista Gingrich, US Ambassador to the Holy See, tweeted: "The 2017 International Religious Freedom Report and the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom underscore America's enduring commitment to religious freedom."
The report also contains a "dissenting statement" in its introductory section by the Vice Chair, James J. Zogby, a Maronite Catholic with family and friends in the Middle East and founder of the Arab American Institute, who was appointed to the commission in 2013 and again in 2015 by President Barack Obama and is now in his final year as a commissioner.
He writes: "There is no question that in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, vulnerable religious communities are facing threats to their very survival. In other instances, there are states that favor one religion over others and/or impose restrictions on the religious practices or beliefs of others, creating serious problems of discrimination and dispossession. In situations such as these, USCIRF ought to be able to play a constructive role, making policy recommendations that would help protect vulnerable communities and support efforts to advance religious freedom. The sad truth is that, by any objective measure, the state of international religious freedom has worsened in the almost two decades since Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
"The questions we should ask are why have we not made a difference and what can we do to become more effective. I believe that part of the reason why we have not been able to contribute to improving the situation of vulnerable faith communities is because of how we have interpreted our mandate. Instead of serving as a bipartisan group of experts making informed recommendations to the Administration and Congress – as was envisioned by IRFA – we have acted more like a Congressionally-funded NGO that issues a variety of materials 'naming and shaming' countries that violate religious freedom.
"I believe that instead of using our limited resources to produce opinion pieces, press releases, and a lengthy and duplicative annual report, and acting as a 'critic' of the Executive Branch, USCIRF should consider new and constructive approaches to its work in order to more effectively promote international religious freedom. Instead of simply making do with 'naming and shaming' the many countries that violate religious freedom, we should develop a more focused approach that involves making an in-depth study of a few targeted countries so that we might be in a position to provide the Administration and Congress with creative problem-solving ideas where improvements in religious freedom can be made."
Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said at the launch press conference that everyone has "a stake in this fight" for religious freedom."One person's bondage is another person's burden to break," he told reporters May 29. "We're all people with beautiful and undeniable human dignity. Our lives are sacred. Our right to choose the road our conscience takes is inalienable."
He referred specifically to Pakistan, where about 50 people are serving life sentences for blasphemy, and 17 are awaiting execution.
Asked at the press conference by Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg whether the U.S. authority to issue the report is undermined in any way by the fact that the President called for a Muslim ban in 2016 during the campaign and as recently as a month ago at a press conference at the White House refused to apologise or retract those remarks, Abassador Brownback responded: "No, I don’t think it is. We put forward in the report everything that’s happening around the world and we report it without favour or analysis. So we put that forward. The United States doesn’t report on itself because the statutory authority doesn’t allow us, but we do report to OSCE and other entities internationally that we’re a part of on our things that happen here. But I think there’s – there are good working relationships that continue to work with the administration and we continue to work with as well."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced the United States will host the first ministerial meeting to be held aimed at advancing religious freedom around the world. It will take place July 25 and July 26 in Washington. He said it will provide an opportunity to "break new ground," and will not just be a "discussion group."
Among its findings the report noted:
– The plight of the Rohingya and the Kachin people in Myanmar. Brownback noted that he visited several of the refugee camps in Bangladesh about a month ago. "The situation is dire. We must do more to help them, as they continue to be targeted for their faith."
– In North Korea, up to 120,000 political prisoners in "horrific conditions" in camps across the country, some have been imprisoned for religious reasons. The report said there were 1,304 cases of alleged religious freedom violations in the country last year.
– In Eritrea, the government "reportedly killed, arrested, and tortured religious adherents and coerced individuals into renouncing their faith".
– Tajikistan continues to prohibit minors from even participating in any religious activities.
– Saudi Arabia does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and imprisons, lashes, and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting the state's interpretation of Islam.
– In Turkmenistan, individuals who gather for worship without registering with the government face arrest, detention, and harassment.
– In China Falun Gong adherents, Uighur Muslims and members of other religious minorities continue to be imprisoned; with many of them dying in custody.
"We also remain very concerned about religious freedom or the lack thereof in Pakistan, where some 50 individuals are serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to civil society reports. Seventeen are awaiting execution," Brownback said. "And in Russia, authorities target peaceful religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, equating them with terrorists."
He said he would "welcome engagement with these and any governments on urgently needed reforms".
"So today, 20 years after Congress passed the original International Religious Freedom Act, we've made important progress, but for far too many, the state of religious freedom is dire," he added. "We have to work together to accomplish change."
He called the new report critical and important, but said that "strong action must follow."
"We must move religious freedom forward. We must defend it in every corner of the globe," Brownback said, adding that the upcoming ministerial meeting aims to do just that.
"Two key objectives of the Trump administration are reduction of terrorism and growing the economy," he said. "With religious freedom, you get both of them. It is also a fundamental human right under assault in much of the world."