- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2014

Christians facing death threats from Islamic extremists flee their homes in Mosul, Iraq. The death toll continues to rise as Israel and Hamas bombard each other with mortar fire. In China, police officers remove landmark crosses from the Christian churches.

A new State Department survey released Monday finds religious freedom under attack in hot spots around the globe, with the displacement of communities because of faith-based persecution in 2013 the largest in recent memory. The displaced include nearly all of Syria’s 160,000 Christians, driven from their ancient homeland by three years of civil war, and 12,000 Burmese Muslims forced from their home by militant Buddhist groups.

Religious freedom is a “human freedom,” and one that continues to be threatened around the world, said Secretary of State John F. Kerry Monday as he presented the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2013.

“When 75 percent of the world’s population still lives in countries that don’t respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us,” Mr. Kerry said. “We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain or torture people based on a religious belief.”

Last year was also a bloody one in the fight for religious freedom. More than 400 Shiite Muslims were killed in Pakistan, while 80 Christians died in a church bombing, the report stated. Shiite Muslims in Egypt and Saudi Arabia were attacked along with Christians, and in Eritrea, more than 1,000 people were jailed because of their religious beliefs and for failing to belong to one of the country’s four sanctioned faiths.

Mr. Kerry said the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan was added to the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” because of reports that people were being jailed, beaten and tortured for their religious beliefs, and the government had created laws prohibiting people from wearing religious clothing in public and distributing religious pamphlets.

SEE ALSO: Chinese police tear down church cross in religion crackdown

“With this report, I emphasize we are not arrogantly telling people what to believe,” Mr. Kerry said. “We’re not telling people how they have to live every day. We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance, the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices. We are asserting a universal principle for tolerance.”

The report also shed a critical light on some countries that look the other way in terms of discrimination, such as Indonesia, which was faulted for not “adequately prosecut[ing] instances of violence, abuse and discrimination” against people based on their religious beliefs, as well as Nigeria for its failure to prevent violence related to the Islamist Boko Haram.

Anti-Semitism was also reported in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom.

The report “does directly shine a light in a way that makes some countries — even some of our friends — uncomfortable,” Mr. Kerry said. “But it does so in order to try to make progress.”

Mr. Kerry also introduced President Obama’s nominee for the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom within the State Department, Rabbi David Saperstein. Rabbi Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and, if approved, would be the first non-Christian to serve in the position.

‘Encouraging signal’

In 1998, Congress enacted the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and provided for the ambassador-at-large post in the State Department.

Mr. Saperstein was the first chairman of the religious freedom commission, a position now held by Katrina Lantos Swett.

Ms. Swett called the nomination of her predecessor “a very encouraging signal that the State Department and administration wants to become more active advocating and really fighting for religious liberty.”

Ms. Swett said the report as a whole came as a good sign of progress, including the department’s decision to put Turkmenistan on its “CPC list.” However, her commission was concerned that other offenders, including Pakistan and Vietnam, did not make the list.

“In our view, Pakistan represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom,” Ms. Swett said, pointing out the mob attack Monday that killed two young girls and their grandmother, who was a member of the Ahmadiyya religious community.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican and a leading Capitol Hill voice on human rights, said that Vietnam was “glaringly absent” from the list.

Mr. Smith said the United States needs to become an advocate for human rights in China, especially the right to religious liberty, and use “powers provided by the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation of Boko Haram to investigate, identify and punish those who provide support of all kinds to this group.”

Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, said the Obama administration has too often failed to back its rhetoric with action when it comes to religious freedom.

While the degradation of religious freedom has not been caused by the administration, he said, “this administration has said a lot but done virtually nothing to advance religious freedom.”

One way to change this course, Mr. Farr said, is for Congress to confirm Rabbi Saperstein and “then put the heat on the State Department to deliver to this man what he needs to succeed,” including adequate resources and a status equal to his fellow ambassadors.

“If we promote religious freedom successfully in our foreign policy, we will be able to employ the reality that religious freedom can help in economic development, it can sustain economic development, and it is necessary for stable democracy,” Mr. Farr said. “This administration has taught us that it’s nothing but words until and unless they produce policy actions.”

Isaac Six, advocacy director for International Christian Concern, called Rabbi Saperstein’s nomination a good step but expressed his worry that “the amount of pressure on the administration that had to be exerted before any action on this position took place is extremely disconcerting.”

He said his organization’s hope was that the nomination, as well as the report, would become a “turning point for the United States and for the millions of persecuted individuals overseas as the administration and the State Department take this opportunity to put international religious freedom back at the top of the foreign policy agenda.”

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