For U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, respect for religious freedom is "a vital foreign policy priority" in addition to being "one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right."
"We know that when the fundamental right of each person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected, people can make their fullest contributions to their community's successes; entire societies are better off," he said June 2 during a briefing at the State Department in Washington.
He made the comments in releasing the department's 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom.
He was joined by Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, who is principal adviser to Blinken and President Joe Biden on religious freedom conditions and policy.
Mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the annual report details the status of religious freedom in 200 foreign countries and territories and describes U.S. actions to support religious freedom worldwide.
The Office of International Religious Freedom leads the annual process of drafting the report, and Blinken noted the office was the only government entity in the world charged with monitoring and defending international religious freedom more than two decades ago.
"Now, we have more than 35 governments and multilateral organizations that have created offices that are dedicated to this goal," he said.
While this year's report documents "notable progress" on religious freedom issues, the report also shows troubling conditions, he said, giving China, Burma/Myanmar, Eritrea, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India as examples.
"China continues its genocide and repression of predominately Muslim Uyghurs and other religious minority groups. Since April 2017, more than 1 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang (province)," he said.
The People's Republic of China, Blinken continued, "continues to harass adherents of other religions that it deems out of line with Chinese Community Party doctrine, including by destroying Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Taoist houses of worship and by erecting barriers to employment and housing for Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners."
Regarding Burma, the former name of Myanmar, Blinken said that after an extensive legal review of the evidence, "I made the determination that Burma's military committed genocide and crimes against humanity with the intent to destroy predominantly Muslim Rohingya in 2017.
This was evidenced "by, among other things, attacks on mosques, the use of religious and ethnic slurs, the desecration of Qurans, among, again, many other actions," Blinken said.
In Eritrea, only four religious groups are permitted to practice their faith freely, he said.
In Afghanistan, conditions for religious freedom "have deteriorated dramatically under the Taliban, particularly as they crack down on the basic rights of women and girls to get an education, to work, to engage in society, often under the banner of religion."
In Pakistan, at least 16 individuals accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by Pakistani courts in 2021, "though none of these sentences has yet to be carried out," he said.
"In India, the world's largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we’ve seen rising attacks on people and places of worship" Blinken said. "In Vietnam ... authorities harass members of unregistered religious communities; in Nigeria ... where several state governments are using antidefamation and blasphemy laws to punish people for expressing their beliefs.
Among the countries Blinken called out for showing progress on religious freedom were Morocco, Taiwan, Timor-Leste and Iraq.
Last year, he said, Morocco launched an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites, such as synagogues and cemeteries, and to include Jewish history in the Moroccan public school curriculum.
"In Taiwan, authorities are making it easier to report employers who refuse to give their workers a weekly rest day in order to attend religious services," he said.
Timor-Leste's new president, José Manuel Ramos-Horta, "recently pledged to defend the rights of all citizens regardless of religious background," Blinken said.
He highlighted Pope Francis' visit to Iraq in March 2021. It was the first papal visit to that country and one Pope Francis called a "pilgrimage of faith and penitence." The trip included not only his visits with the Catholic faithful but also a historic meeting with revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Blinken said, "One local leader from the city of Nasiriyah, Sheikh Haider al-Dubaisi, later reflected on the pope’s visit and he said, and I quote, 'He came even though he could barely walk. He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world, that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully."
In many parts of the world, "governments are failing to respect their citizens' basic rights," Blinken said. "Some governments continue to use blasphemy and apostacy laws, which banned defamation and renunciation of religion, to police the language of religious minorities.
"Others curtail expressions of religious belief like restrictions on religious attire."
All societies, "including our own and across Europe," he said, "must do more to combat rising forms of hate, including antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiment."