The U.S. must make religious freedom a top priority with Burma if there is hope for the southeast Asian country to make progress as a rights-based democracy, said a leader in religious liberty. “First and foremost, the United States should ensure that religious freedom and related human rights remain a high priority at all levels of engagement with the Burmese government. Consistency in these efforts is key,” Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told CNA. “It will be nearly impossible for Burma to proceed with a democratic form of government that respects and promotes rights if it does not also honor and respect genuine religious freedom,” he added. President Obama visited the country on Nov. 12-13 as part of his tour of China, Burma, and Australia. He met with Burmese President Thein Sein, with members of parliament, and with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-time advocate of democratic reforms. Burma — also known as Myanmar — has been on the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” since 1999. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has long recommended that status for “systematic, egregious, ongoing violations” of religious liberty by the government and various sects there. The worst persecutions have been against the Rohingya Muslims, who number over 1 million and occupy an area in the western part of Burma. “Rohingya Muslims in Burma are perhaps the most persecuted religious and ethnic minority community in the world,” Jasser told CNA, “due to their displacement, disenfranchisement and general denial of basic human rights, including freedom of religion or belief.” The 2014 USCIRF annual report noted that because they lack citizenship, the Rohingya Muslims have been denied movement to other countries and about 300,000 are forced to live in refugee camps where, among other dangers, human trafficking occurs. They face religious persecution, he added, being prevented from common prayer and preaching their faith. Obama reportedly mentioned their plight in his meetings with the president and the opposition leader. He stated after his bi-lateral meeting with President Sein that “the democratic process in Myanmar is real” but added that “we recognize the process is incomplete.” Muslims in general face persecution in Burma, but also certain ethnic Christian communities are targeted, Jasser noted. “When visiting Burma in August, I heard firsthand from Rohingya Muslims as well as from almost every Burmese Muslim how much their denial of religious freedom and related human rights impacts their everyday lives,” Jasser said, emphasizing “intransigent national attitudes towards Muslims” by Buddhist leaders. But Christians are also persecuted there, he added, like the “Chin and Kachin Christian communities who experience systemic interference and intolerance in their rights to practice their faith freely.” All religious minorities are threatened by proposed legislation that would limit “religious conversions, marriages, and births,” Jasser continued. The U.S. must prioritize religious freedom in future dealings with Burma, perhaps to the point of a binding agreement “under the International Religious Freedom Act,” and which “establishes clear commitments with defined measures of success,” he said. “Critically, a binding agreement would clearly place the burden for action on the Burmese government to protect the rights of the entire populace,” he concluded.
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