Religious freedom advocates were heartened by the State Department recognizing in its annual religious freedom report released Tuesday the genocide of Christians by the Islamic State.
“As we make progress in defeating ISIS and denying them their caliphate, their terrorist members have and continue to target multiple religions and ethnic groups for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and even death,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated at the Aug. 15 release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom report.
“Application of the law to the facts at hand leads to the conclusion ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled,” he said. “ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
The annual State Department report is mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and worked to make promoting religious freedom a part of U.S. foreign policy. The 2016 report makes explicit reference to the “genocide” of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims at the hands of the Islamic State, or “Daesh.” Then-Secretary of State John Kerry had said in March of 2016 that “in my judgement, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”
In 2014, Islamic State militants conquered large areas of territory in Iraq and Syria, forcing religious and ethnic minorities in the region to stay and convert to Islam, leave, or die. Reports documented that Islamic State committed mass killings of Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and others, as well as enslaving women and children. The Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians partnered to release a massive report documenting Islamic State atrocities committed against Christians. As Islamic State has been driven from towns in northern Iraq, the inhabitants have returned to find their homes vandalized and their churches desecrated or destroyed.
“America’s promotion of international religious freedom demands standing up for the rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations,” the preface to the State Department’s report stated. Tillerson added that in addition to Christians being targeted for genocide in Iraq and Syria, they have also been targeted by Islamic State militants in Egypt. “The protection of these groups — and others subject to violent extremism — is a human rights priority for the Trump administration,” he said.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., welcomed Tillerson’s statement as an even more forceful pronouncement of genocide than was made by the previous administration. Tillerson, Shea said, “forcefully clarified that ISIS has the ‘specific intent’ of destroying the Christian community, along with the other two minorities.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the author of the update to the original International Religious Freedom Act, also praised Tillerson for specifically recognizing the atrocities committed against minorities under Islamic State. “I want to commend Secretary Tillerson for focusing on those who have been victims of genocide,” he said. “These groups are looking for help and leadership, and I am proud that after eight years of denial and foot dragging, this report positions the United States to become a world leader in helping those who need it most.”
Tillerson, in his remarks unveiling the report on Tuesday, also focused on the persecution of minorities in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Pakistan, Sudan, and Bahrain. In Iran, for instance, 20 persons were executed by the state in 2016 for apostasy charges including “waging war against God,” he said. Baha'i leaders are still imprisoned for their religious beliefs in the country, where the state religion is Ja’afari Shia Islam.
In Turkey, religious minorities have seen their rights infringed upon by the government, which has also imprisoned Pastor Andrew Brunson who should be released, Tillerson said. “Turkey continues to unjustly imprison Dr. Andrew Brunson without charges, and I appreciate Secretary Tillerson reminding the world of this. It is important for America to be clear about the human rights abuses happening around the world,” Sen. Lankford (R-Okla.) said.
Tillerson also named Saudi Arabia as a violator of human rights and religious freedom, as punishments like prison and lashings are given to persons for charges of apostasy, atheism, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam. “We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens,” Tillerson stated to the U.S. ally.
China is another well-known human rights violator, torturing and detaining thousands of citizens for their religious beliefs, including Uyghur Muslims and the members of Falun Gong, Tillerson said. However, the secretary did not also mention that Christians are persecuted by the government there. State-sanctioned destruction of churches, or removing crosses from churches, has become commonplace in some provinces, and state officials have hampered parents from bringing their children to church.
In addition, the Vatican and the Chinese government have been working on an agreement on the appointment of bishops in the state-sanctioned Church, although critics like Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Archbishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, say the atheistic government will continue to meddle in the elections of bishops. Smith said the report “rightly shows that China’s religious freedom conditions are among the world’s worst.”
“The Chinese government is an equal opportunity abuser of the rights of Protestants, Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, Uyghur Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners — all who face imprisonment and torture for practicing their faith,” he said. Calling the report “a step in the right direction,” he also commended the reporting on other countries, such as Vietnam, Pakistan, Nigeria. and Syria, “with individuals who simply want to worship in peace being beaten, jailed, tortured or worse.”
“The more difficult step will be to place these countries or non-state actors like ISIS and Boko Haram on the U.S. blacklist of severe religious freedom violators,” he said. This would include updating the “Countries of Particular Concern” list, which is comprised of countries the State Department deems where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place and the government is either the instigator, actively complicit, or is powerless to stop the abuses.
The creation of the list was mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act as a way to hold violators of religious freedom accountable. Actions can be legally taken against such countries if the State Department places them on the CPC list, like imposing sanctions.
With the rise of non-state terror groups like Islamic State and Boko Haram, Smith’s bill created the “Entities of Particular Concern” designation for violators of religious freedom that are not themselves states and who are active in multiple countries. The State Department currently has designated China, Burma, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan as CPCs. Pakistan does not occupy a place on the list despite leading the world in the number of prison sentences for blasphemy, which can carry a death sentence.
Also, Tillerson did not mention Russia in his remarks, despite the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal commission that advises the State Department, asking that it be added to the CPC list as one of the worst violators of religious freedom.
In its annual report earlier this year, the commission pointed to the criminalization of certain non-sanctioned religious beliefs in the Russian mainland, and the treatment of minorities in the Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula as serious abuses that merited Russia’s place on the CPC list. Recently, Russia’s supreme court rejected an appeal of the outlawing of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.
Religious freedom advocates applauded the Trump administration’s selection earlier this summer of an Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who is charged with monitoring abuses of freedom of religion abroad and promoting religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy. President Donald Trump nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a former U.S. Senator, for the position. Lankford expressed his desire that Brownback be confirmed for the position soon.