Washington D.C., Apr 26, 2017 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid a rising tide of violence, imprisonment, and harassment on account of people’s religious beliefs, the United States cannot grow weary of defending religious freedom, a leading advocate insisted Wednesday.
“It’s kind of a fatigue that people get on these kinds of issues, that ‘they’re happening everywhere and what can you do’,” Fr. Thomas Reese, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told reporters on a conference call April 26. “And we think that’s really a tragedy.” Any violation of freedom of religion “is something that impacts people on a very fundamental level,” he continued. “It’s human beings that are in jail, it’s human beings that are being tortured and persecuted. Religious beliefs are at the core of who we are and our identity as persons.”
USCIRF, a bipartisan commission which, in the words of its chair, “monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad” and makes policy recommendations to Congress, the State Department, and the White House, released its annual report on international religious freedom on Wednesday.
In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act created the commission and mandated that both it and the State Department release annual reports on the state of religious freedom. It also created the office of Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom. That office has been vacant since President Donald Trump assumed office.
“In order to help protect and preserve this right [religious freedom] for all, our American government should do more, and as a first step, nominate and confirm an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. “As a nation, we cannot ensure that the fundamental right of religious freedom is protected for all people if we do not actively address the egregious violations being committed by nations with whom the United States interacts, including our own allies,” he continued.
In the last year, the situation for global religious freedom grew worse, the USCIRF report said, “in both the depth and breadth of violations.” For instance, the Islamic State perpetrated genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, which in March of 2016 then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared was taking place, the first time the U.S had declared genocide as it was occurring since 2004.
Egregious abuses like “attempted genocide” and “wholesale destruction of places of worship” have overshadowed countless other abuses like anti-blasphemy laws, restrictive laws on association, registration laws for religious minorities, and government harassment of religious minorities in the name of national security, the report said.
One of the key aspects of the report is the commission’s recommendations for the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. The State Department designates certain countries as CPCs to draw public attention to the areas where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place.
The CPC designation carries with it legal “tools” that the president and Congress can use to pressure these countries to improve the respect for freedom of religion there, like imposing sanctions or negotiating a binding agreement when necessary after previous consultations with the government in question, the report said.
Currently China, Burma, Eritrea, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan occupy the CPC list. In Burma, a whole class of persons, the Rohingya Muslims, are not recognized as citizens, thus remaining stateless and vulnerable to displacement and violations of their human rights. Christian minorities “are restricted from public worship and subjected to coerced conversion to Buddhism,” the report said. North Korea features “one of the world’s most repressive regimes” where religious freedom is “profoundly repressed,” with people imprisoned, tortured, and killed because of their religious belief.
However, USCIRF also recommends that Russia, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam be on the CPC list. Vietnam was previously designated a CPC by the State Department, but was removed from the list in 2006 despite USCIRF’s insistence that it remain.
“For the first time, we call out Russia as a CPC,” Fr. Reese stated on Wednesday at a teleconference introducing the report. “Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have shown themselves to be some of the worst and most serious violators of religious freedom in the world.”
He cited the recent ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country by Russia’s supreme court as only the latest example of a troubling trend of violations, especially those related to the country’s use of an anti-extremism law. That law is used to crack down on religious minorities in the name of national security, USCIRF explained.
“The Russian government’s premeditated attack [on Jehovah’s Witnesses] demonstrates that it does not consider itself bound by internationally-recognized norms or conventions,” Fr. Reese said. “A Russian justice minister official reportedly described Jehovah’s Witnesses as a threat to public order and public security. Given that the witnesses are known globally for their pacifism and avoidance of politics, that statement is as absurd on its face as it seems.”
In the Caucasus region, the country’s anti-extremism law has been abused for years, Fr. Reese noted. “Anyone with a beard is considered an extremist and can be arrested,” he said. He also noted that in Crimea, a Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014, the nation is “imposing its very tough registration laws on the religions in the Crimea,” as well as the arrest of Muslim Tatar leaders and persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
In December 2016 another law passed the United States Congress to make major upgrades to the existing International Religious Freedom Act. Among other things, it called for the designation of “EPCs,” or “entities of particular concern” for non-state actors which perpetrate serious abuses of religious freedom, such as the Islamic State, which “can at times be the most egregious violators of religious freedom,” Fr. Reese noted.
USCIRF recommended that the State Department use the EPC label for three groups: the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The reason why groups like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram were not recommended for EPCs is because they lost territory and “political power” that other groups like the Islamic State had, Fr. Reese explained.
Additionally, the commission had previously recommended a CPC status for Egypt and Iraq, but decided not to do so in 2017. In Egypt “we see positive steps,” Fr. Reese said, pointing to the government’s “engagement with minority religious communities” like the embattled Coptic Christians. However, these minorities are still subject to serious attacks by Islamic State affiliates, he maintained, and the country has “a dismal overall human rights situation.”
In Iraq, Islamic State “continues to commit genocide and ruthlessly targets anyone who does not adhere to its barbaric worldview,” Fr. Reese said, yet “the central government has tried to decrease sectarian tensions.”
“Tier 2” countries are not the worst violators of religious freedom, but serious abuses still took place in these areas. USCIRF listed Afghanistan, Azerbajan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey as Tier 2 countries.
Bahrain was listed as a Tier 2 country for the first time, Fr. Reese explained. “That government’s campaign against its majority-Shia Muslim population intensified during the year, particularly a significant increase in the number of arrests and unfounded charges against Shia clerics,” he said.
The report also made recommendations for U.S. refugee policy, including the reauthorization of the Lautenberg Amendment which would help with the resettlement of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities fleeing Iran. “We have supported that as a way of facilitating the resettlement of people who have suffered religious persecution,” Fr. Reese said. These persons “are very vulnerable,” he said of those fleeing persecution, and they should “get a priority in terms of refugee status” which is “based on their vulnerability.”
President Trump, in a revised executive order in March, temporarily halted refugee resettlement and ultimately called for a cap to refugee admissions in FY 2017 at 50,000, down from the 85,000 the U.S. accepted the previous fiscal year and the planned number of 110,000 in FY 2017.
“In response, USCIRF urged the Trump Administration to continue refugee resettlement,” the report said. “While resettlement to a third country is only possible for less than one percent of the world’s refugees, it is a vital protection for the most vulnerable, especially at a time of appalling mass atrocities and unprecedented forced displacement.”
The number of those forcibly displaced from their homes is at its highest ever recorded, over 65 million as of 2016, according to the UN. USCIRF also monitored abuses of religious freedom in Western Europe, including an increase of anti-Semitic incidents and Islamophobia.
Laws restricting religious dress and the “ability to wear symbols” like France’s ban on burqas “are causing more unrest and problems,” Fr. Reese insisted. “I think it’s something that we want our friends in Europe to take a second look at.”
Another recommendation the report made was for the U.S. to not refer to freedom of religion as “freedom of worship.” Such a reference, it said, “does not convey all aspects of the internationally protected right to freedom of religion or belief, which includes choosing, changing, and sharing one’s beliefs, as well as holding no religious beliefs.”