- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The jihadist terror group Islamic State is engaged in a policy of genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in the areas it controls in the Middle East, according to the State Department’s latest annual assessment of the state of religious freedom around the world.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, in brief remarks Tuesday introducing the first religious freedom report issued by the Trump administration, said that ISIS genocide targeted Christians, Yazidis and even Shia Muslims since the terror group seized territory in Iraq and Syria following its rise in 2014. Mr. Tillerson, who did not take questions from reporters, said the genocide determination was made to “remove any ambiguity” about the extent of ISIS’s violations.

According to a separate report released by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in April 2017, the status of international religious freedom “is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations.”

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s population faces some form of persecution or restrictions over their religious beliefs, Mr. Tillerson said, calling out Iran, China, Pakistan and Sudan but also American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey for their restrictions on religious freedom.

Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who authored an international religious freedom law passed last year, praised Mr. Tillerson’s decisive stance toward ISIS, contrasting it with what he said was a less focused approach under President Obama.

“These groups are looking for help and leadership,” Mr. Smith said in a statement Tuesday, “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.”

In particular, Mr. Tillerson called for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey and denounced the Chinese government for “tortur[ing], detain[ing], and imprison[ing] dozens for practicing religious beliefs.”

“Unfortunately, the list goes on,” Mr. Tillerson said.

The latest survey, issued every year in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, looks at the state of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories. The report is designed to inform foreign policy decisions but not to rank other nations, Michael Kozak, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told reporters Tuesday.

Mr. Kozak noted religious freedom improvements in Vietnam, Uzbekistan and Tunisia, among other countries, in some cases due to U.S. engagement.

As in previous years, China and Turkey did not escape criticism for repressing citizens’ religious freedoms. In a separate State Department report released in October 2016, the two nations were listed among 10 “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), along with: Myanmar, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The report released this week called out China for persecution of Christian groups and the Falun Gong in particular, and highlighted harsh punishments — such as flogging and imprisonment — for anti-Islamic expression in Saudi Arabia.

Several other countries, including Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Syria, were recommended by the International Religious Freedom Commission’s April report for inclusion on the CPC list but have yet to be designated by the State Department. The State Department will issue the next CPC list in 90 days, Mr. Kozak said.

Asked what international religious freedom has to do with Mr. Trump’s proclaimed “America first” policy, Mr. Kozak responded that security abroad enhances security at home.

Religious persecution “correlates very often and very closely with instability and unrest and warfare and murder around the world,” Mr. Kozak said. “If we can … reduce the fertile field for those kinds of things growing up, we’ve done something that does help protect the American people.”

Following the recommendation of the religious freedom commission to appoint an international religious freedom ambassador, President Trump has nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the position. Mr. Brownback has yet to be confirmed for this role.

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