Special Report

Religious Liberty Lost Worldwide

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its annual report.

By 12.7.10

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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.

Most striking is the veritable destruction of Iraq's Christian community, which predates the arrival of Islam. The original population of 1.4 million is down to about 500,000. The USCIRF quotes "Christian leaders warning that the result of this flight may be 'the end of Christianity in Iraq.'"

*Nigeria. An estimated 12,000 have died in sectarian violence over the last decade. Reports the USCIRF, "The government of Nigeria continues to respond inadequately and ineffectively to recurrent communal and sectarian violence." The tragic result has been more violence: "Years of inaction by Nigeria's federal, state and local governments as created a climate of impunity, resulting in thousands of deaths."

Although Christians and Muslims share responsibility, violence has been concentrated in the Muslim-majority states to the north, where Sharia law has been widely imposed. The legislation is supposed to be applicable only to Muslims, but "some states in recent years have instituted or tolerated discriminatory practices based on religious precepts," including bans on public religious activities, notes the USCIRF.

*North Korea. This probably is the most repressive state on earth. Observes the Commission: "The government controls most aspects of daily life, including religious activity, which is allowed only in government-operated religious 'federations' or in a small number of government-approved 'house churches.' Other public and private religious activity is prohibited. Anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious activity is subject to discrimination, arrest, arbitrary detention, disappearance, torture, and public execution."

*Pakistan. The Commission paints a dark picture: "Systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in Pakistan. Religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the anti-Ahmadi laws and blasphemy laws foster an atmosphere of intolerance. Sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minorities from such violence and to bring perpetrators to justice. Growing religious extremism threatens the freedoms of expression and religion or belief, as well as other human rights, for everyone in Pakistan, particularly women, members of religious minorities, and those in the majority Muslim community who hold views deemed un-Islamic by extremists."

The blasphemy laws are routinely abused, resulting "in the lengthy detention of, and sometimes violence against," religious minorities. Most frightening has been persistent sectarian violence.

*Saudi Arabia. This U.S. ally avidly promotes religious totalitarianism. The USCIRF points to "Systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continue in Saudi Arabia." Forget King Abdullah's liberalizing pretensions: "the Saudi government persists in banning all forms of public religious expression other than that of the government's own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam and also interferes with private religious practice." Despite official promises to tolerate expatriate workers worshipping in their homes, the government's religious police regularly raid such gatherings and arrest non-Muslims. Lengthy imprisonment and torture await those arrested for religious offenses.

*Sudan. With the end of Sudan's civil war, the situation has improved in south Sudan, where Christians and animists predominate. But religious persecution remains distressingly common.

Reports the Commission: "Systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue to occur in Sudan. Violations include: the efforts by the Arab Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum to impose Sharia on Muslims and non-Muslims alike; governmental promotion of Sudan's identity as being Arab and Muslims, thus effectively relegating non-Aras and non-Muslims to a secondary status in the society; the criminalization of conversion from Islam, a crime punishable by death, and the intense scrutiny, intimidation, and even torture of suspected converts by government security personnel; the denial of the rights of non-Muslims to public religious expression and persuasion, while allowing Muslims to proselytize; and the difficulty in obtaining permission to build churches, as compared to government funding of mosque construction."

*Turkmenistan. Human rights have improved in recent years, but abuses remain rife. According to the USCIRF, the country's religious law includes: "intrusive registration criteria; the requirement that the government be informed of all financial support received from abroad; a ban on worship in private homes and the public wearing of religious garb except by religious leaders; and severe and discriminatory restrictions on religious education."

There is no recognition of conscientious objectors. The government interferes with internal church governance. Unregistered religious groups face systematic legal disabilities. Production of religious literature is banned. Worse, "in recent years, members of religious communities, including Muslims, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and a Hare Krishna, reportedly received prison terms or were sent into internal exile due to their religious convictions."

*Uzbekistan. Reports the Commission: "The Uzbek government harshly penalizes individuals for independent religious activity, regardless of their religious affiliation. A restrictive religion law severely limits the rights of all religious communities and facilitates the Uzbek government's control over them, particularly the majority Muslim community."

Religions must register with the government: "Unregistered religious congregations may be subject to massive fines and police raids, as well as threats of physical violence, detentions, and arrest." Yet the authorities routinely refuse to accept registrations from disfavored churches, including Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, and others. The government also misuses laws against "extremism" to persecute the same groups, as well as Muslims. 

*Vietnam. This communist state harshly restricts religious liberty. According to the USCIRF, the regime "continues to control government-approved religious communities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging political authority."

In fact, religious liberty is under sustained assault: "individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy; police and government officials are not held fully accountable for abuses; independent religious activity remains illegal; legal protections for government-approved religious organizations are both vague and subject to arbitrary or discriminatory interpretations based on political factors; and new converts to some Protestant and Buddhist communities face discrimination and pressure to renounce their faith." Moreover, the Commission charges that dozens of people remain in prison for their faith and religious rights advocates have been threatened and imprisoned.

The foregoing is a Dirty Baker's Dozen of religious repression. But another dozen countries go on the "Watch List" -- countries which engage in severe religious persecution, just not quite so bad.

Afghanistan is an American client state, but explains the USCIRF, "individuals lack protection to dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy." Authoritarian Belarus has been compared to that of the Soviet Union. Cuba impedes and monitors religious organizations and harasses and arrests religious activists. In Egypt "Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims, remain widespread."

The response of India's central government to widespread communal violence and provincial discrimination remains inadequate. The problem is similar in Indonesia, where "sectarian violence, terrorism, and religious freedom violations" go unchallenged by local and regional officials. In Laos, provincial officials "severely violate the freedom of religion or belief, including detentions, surveillance, harassment, threats of property loss, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith." In Russia religious liberty is shrinking along with political and civil freedoms. 

Religious minorities have suffered badly in the ongoing sectarian strife in Somalia. Tajikistan restricts all religious life. Turkey sharply limits public expression of religious faith while Christians have suffered from deadly Muslim assaults. In Venezuela there has been an increase in "government rhetoric, and in some cases government actions, against the Jewish and Catholic communities and certain Protestant groups."

Finally, the Commission is monitoring three other countries where persecution remains a problem. Religious minorities fare poorly in Bangladesh. Kazakhstan has been moving backwards on religious liberty issues. Communal violence is common in Sri Lanka, and legislation has been proposed to criminalize conversion.

Washington's ability to promote religious liberty overseas always will be limited. Nevertheless, religious persecution must be part of Washington's human rights dialogue with other nations. Moreover, Americans should support and pray for those who are denied the right to worship freely. The oppressed must not be forgotten.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).