The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its annual report.
Americans take religious liberty for granted. Unfortunately, this most fundamental freedom of conscience and action is not protected in many other countries around the world.
State repression is the most obvious assault on religious faith. Today Christians face the death penalty in Afghanistan and Pakistan in prosecutions for converting from Islam and allegedly blaspheming Mohammed, respectively.
But the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warns that “a second and equally egregious threat to religious freedom” is the failure “to punish religiously motivated violence perpetrated by private actors.” In this case public officials become accomplices to often brutal private violations of religious liberty.
The U.S. government’s ability to promote any kind of human rights in other nations is obviously limited. Nevertheless, religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the mine. If a state won’t respect this most basic freedom of conscience, it isn’t likely to respect people’s lives and dignity in any context.
Unfortunately, there is more than enough bad news to fill the USCIRF’s latest annual report. The Commission focused on 28 countries. Worst were conditions in the 13 “countries of particular concern.” This rogue’s gallery is made up of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
*Burma. In this poor Southeast Asian nation, explains the panel, “Religious freedom violations affect every religious group.” Christians and other religious minorities have suffered the worst. House churches were essentially outlawed last year, following a prohibition of meetings in unregistered venues the previous year.
Moreover, notes the USCIRF, “In ethnic minority areas, where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades, the Burmese military forcibly promotes Buddhism and seeks to control the growth of Protestantism by intimidating and harassing adherents.” The junta’s periodic brutal campaigns have “destroyed religious venues, actively promoted conversion to Buddhism, confiscated land, and mandated forced labor. The Chin, Naga, Kachin, Shan, Karen, and Karenni peoples, each with sizable Christian populations, have been the primary targets of these abuses.”
Moreover, the regime routinely interferes with Buddhism, the country’s dominant faith. After large-scale protests in 2007, “the regime also began systematically to repress Burmese Buddhists, closing monasteries, arresting and defrocking monks, and curtailing their public religious activities.” Many of those arrested and detained “have reported torture, forced defrocking, hard labor, and other deprivations.”
*China. Although Beijing has been attempting to calm international fears about its rise, China’s leaders have been exhibiting their fear of religion. Reports the Commission: “The Chinese government strictly controls all religious practice and represses religious activity outside state-approved organizations. Some Chinese citizens can assemble to worship and conduct charitable projects within government-approved parameters. Unregistered religious groups, or those deemed by the government to threaten national security or social harmony, face severe violations, including fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment, and the destruction of religious sites. Religious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims are the worst they have been in the past ten years.”
Even members of officially-sanctioned churches “are not safe from harassment, detentions, and arrest due to the arbitrary nature of Chinese law an policy regarding religion,” notes the USCIRF. Unofficial groups are at far greater risk. “Though the total number of arrest and imprisonments declined in the past year, government efforts to suppress the growth and activities of ‘house church’ Protestants continue to be systematic and intense.” Perhaps most virulent has been the sustained campaign against the Falun Gong.
*Eritrea. This North African nation has been turned into a totalitarian hellhole by home grown revolutionaries, who suppress all freedoms indiscriminately. The regime recognizes but four religious groupings, and even their adherents are not safe.
According to the Commission: “Systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea. These violations include: arbitrary arrests and detentions without charge of members of unregistered religious groups; torture or other ill-treatment of religious prisoners, sometimes resulting in death; a prolonged ban on public religious activities by all unrecognized religious groups; closure by the authorities of the places of worship of these groups; inordinate delays on registration applications from religious groups; and the disruption of private religious gatherings and social events of members of unregistered groups.”
*Iran. Explains the USCIRF: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” Under political pressure, the regime “has increasingly manipulated the reach of its religious laws to silence, and in some cases put to death, Shi’a Muslims simply for exercising their internationally protected rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.”
Nevertheless, most vulnerable to repression are religious minorities: Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims, and especially Baha’is. The latter are viewed as heretics and treated accordingly.
*Iraq. The Commission details how Christians and other religious minorities suffered after the U.S. invasion: “Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Iraq. Members of the country’s smallest religious minorities still suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which they receive insufficient government protection.” These smaller communities “also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect,” while religious violence continues between Sunnis and Shiites.
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