Citing the Islamic State’s attacks on Christians and other religious minorities, rising bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe and Beijing’s campaign against churches in China, a new U.S. government report said Monday that attacks on religious freedom have grown measurably around the world over the past year.
While President Obama has pursued openings with some key offenders, including Iran and Myanmar, and criticized others such as North Korea and China, the annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said embattled faith groups are “under serious and sustained assault” in those nations and beyond.
“Regrettably, the situation is that things have not improved, and in some places things have gotten worse,” said Robert P. George, who chairs the bipartisan federal commission.
Mr. George added that there has been “a continued gap between rhetoric of the regime and the situation on the ground” in recent years. “While we welcome the rhetoric, rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it’s accompanied by action,” he said.
The report itself faulted such usual suspects as North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, but departed from past years by leveling sharp criticism at some key U.S. allies and nations with whom the Obama administration has recently sought warmer relations.
The report called on the State Department to add eight nations to its existing list of “countries of particular concern,” which the commission defines as “countries whose governments either engage in or tolerate ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom.”
There were already nine on the list — Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The commission said Monday in its 2016 annual report that Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Tajikistan should be added.
Ten other nations — including Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Russia and Turkey — were listed as so-called “Tier 2” countries, where “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.”
USCIRF, which has provided annual policy recommendations to the White House, State Department and Congress since its inception in 1998, also highlighted the “horrific global refugee crisis,” with “religion being a factor in humanitarian crises worldwide that have forced millions to flee.”
In a conference call with reporters, Mr. George said American officials should be doing more to make the protection of religious freedom a focal point of dealing with the refugee crises.
While he took care not to directly criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, Mr. George, a professor at Princeton University, said that “the right to religious freedom deserves a prominent seat at the table.”
The panel said the State Department has improved its outreach to oppressed religious communities around the world, but lamented that Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein sits “among a crowded field of officials with overlapping mandates.”
“We’d like Ambassador Saperstein to be listened to in a more focused way,” said Mr. George.
The worst offenders
While Monday’s report did not rank the nations for their offenses to religious freedom, Mr. George said without hesitation that North Korea “is one of the worst offending nations, if not the worst offending nation in the world.”
“In North Korea, thousands of religious believers and their families are imprisoned in labor camps,” said Monday’s report. “Religious freedom is non-existent. Individuals secretly engaging in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution.
“North Koreans suspected of contacts with South Koreans or foreign missionaries or who are caught possessing Bibles have been executed,” it said.
The report also singled out Pakistan, asserting that “more people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world.”
“This is an outrage,” said Mr. George, who pointed to the case of Aasia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five in Pakistan who has been imprisoned since her arrest in 2009 on blasphemy charges and is presently on death row.
But Mr. George stressed that Pakistani authorities have also used the blasphemy laws to go after minority Muslim sects. Abdul Shakoor was sentenced in January on blasphemy charges and “trumped-up” terrorism charges for propagating the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim faith.
The report said the religiously motivated arrests in Iran have “increased” since President Hassan Rouhani — often characterized by international media as a moderate — came to power in 2013. The Obama administration-backed nuclear accord with Iran has had no positive impact on Tehran’s record on religious minorities, the report suggested.
“Elevating its own interpretation of Shia Islam above all others, Iran subjects its people — from Shia, Sunni, and Sufi Muslim dissenters to Bahais and Christian converts — to increasing religious freedom abuses, from harassment to arrests and imprisonment,” the document said.
The report also pointed to a host of abuses by China, including the government’s crackdown on ethnic Uighur Muslims and its “systematic efforts in recent years to forcibly remove church crosses in Zhenjiang Province, an area with a high concentration of Christians.”
“Chinese authorities use the pretext of building code violations to target houses of worship, particularly churches, as illegal structures,” the report said.
But the report also leveled uncomfortable criticism at nations widely considered to be U.S. allies.
“In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India,” it said, adding that members of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have tacitly supported Hindu nationalist groups in carrying out “intimidation, harassment, and violence” against minority “Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs.”
While the report said Egypt has issued “public statements encouraging religious tolerance and moderation,” it criticized Cairo for fostering “a climate of impunity” by failing to prosecute those responsible for sectarian violence in recent years, particularly violence that was carried out against Coptic Christians in 2013.
Despite strengthening relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, meanwhile, the report said Hanoi continues to control “nearly all religious activities” in the nation. While improvements have been made in the decades since the Vietnam War, the report said the government still “represses individuals and groups viewed as challenging state authority.”
The Islamic State genocide
The Obama administration made international headlines last month when Secretary of State John F. Kerry officially declared that the Islamic State terror group has carried out “genocide” against Christians and other religious and ethnic minority groups under its control, including Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.
The development marked the first time U.S. officials have officially declared a genocide since 2004, when the George W. Bush administration used the term to describe the killing in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Monday’s report said that the religious freedom climate in Iraq as a whole “continued to deteriorate in 2015,” especially in areas under the control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
“ISIL targets anyone who does not espouse its extremist Islamist ideology, but minority religious and ethnic communities, including the Christian, Yazidi, Shia, Turkmen and Shabak communities, are especially vulnerable,” the report said. “In 2015, USCIRF concluded that ISIL was committing genocide against these groups, and crimes against humanity against these and other groups.”
But Monday’s report also criticized the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Hader al-Abadi for turning a blind eye to sectarian-related atrocities carried out by Shiite Muslim militants in the nation.
“While ISIL was the most egregious perpetrator of human rights and religious freedom violations, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), recognized by Prime Minister al-Abadi in September 2015 as officially part of the Iraqi state, have continued to commit systematic attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians, exacerbating sectarian tensions,” the report said.