Special Report

Religious Persecution’s Global Reach

Is the U.S. doing as much as it could to expose it? And what about the rest of us?

By 5.22.07

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ALEXANDRIA, Virginia -- The Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights gathered on Saturday to review the sad state of religious liberty around the globe. Led by Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International, the group painted a depressing portrait of religious persecution worldwide.

The news was uniformly bad: the mistreatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt, virtual destruction of the Christian community in Iraq, afflictions visited upon Christians in Lebanon, and deteriorating conditions facing Buddhists and Hindus as well as Christians in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Obviously, religious liberty is one of the most threatened human rights. Yet even as they persecute religious minorities in their midst, Muslim states are waging an effort through the United Nations (naturally!) to punish other religious believers who defame (that is, question) Islam -- in the name of protecting "religion."

The problem of religious persecution is pervasive. For instance, in its newly released annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a State Department advisory panel, cites Russia, Turkey, and Iraq.

There is in Russia a "rise in xenophobia and ethnic and religious intolerance," including "violent attacks and other hate crimes." In the name of anti-terrorism the Russian government has harassed "individual Muslims and Muslim communities."

Legislation has targeted human rights groups and "non- commercial organizations, including religious groups." Moreover, the Commission pointed to "continued restrictions by Russian authorities on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief, particularly at the regional and local levels."

As for Turkey, the Commission cited restrictions on the display of Islamic beliefs in the public square. Moreover, the Commission highlighted "state actions that effectively prevent religious minority communities from maintaining themselves, denying them full property rights, including the right to own and maintain property, and to train religious clergy."

Of particular concern are "incidents of anti-minority violence, especially against Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, as well as growing anti-Semitism in some sectors of the country." Evidence of this problem was the recent, gruesome torture-murder of three Christians by Islamists.

Far worse, however, is the situation in Iraq. As the security situation has deteriorated, religiously-oriented violence has increased dramatically. Notes the Commission:

[S]uccessive Iraqi governments have not curbed the growing scope and severity of human rights abuses. Instead, in the past year, there has been a dramatic increase in sectarian violence between Arab Sunni and Shi'a factions, combined with religiously-motivated human rights abuses targeting non-Muslims, secular Arabs, women, homosexuals, and other vulnerable groups, on which the Commission has previously reported. Although the Sunni-dominated insurgency and foreign jihadi groups are responsible for a substantial proportion of the sectarian violence and associated human rights abuses, Iraq's Shi'a-dominated government bears responsibility for the actions it engages in, as well as for tolerating abuses committed by Shi'a militias with ties to political factions in the governing coalition.

The problem is ongoing. At the Coalition meeting, Peter BetBasoo of the Assyrian International News Agency reported on a Baghdad neighborhood in which Muslim fundamentalists recently told Christian families to move, convert, pay protection money, or turn over a daughter for marriage. As many as half of Iraq's pre-invasion Christians have fled, primarily to Syria and Jordan, where they live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

RELIGIOUS MINORITIES SUFFER BADLY in a score of other nations. The Commission designated 11 states as "Countries of Particular Concern." The title may sound goofy, but it represents brutal repression in Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkemenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

Burma conducts murderous military operations against ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Karenni, seeking autonomy. Many of the resistors are Christians. Jim Jacobson of Christian Freedom International decries "genocidal persecution at the hands of the Burmese military." Moreover, notes the Commission, "The government imposes restrictions on certain religious practices, controls and censors all religious publications, has supported, allowed, or instigated violence against religious minorities, and in some areas of the country, has forcefully promoted Buddhism over other religions."

In Sudan another long-running civil war primarily targeted Christians and animists. The 2005 peace agreement has improved religious freedom in the south, but elsewhere, warns the Commission, the regime "has pursued coercive policies of Arabization and Islamization resulting in genocide" and "severely restricts the religious freedom and other universal human rights of an ethnically and religiously diverse population."

North Korea is a totalitarian states, crushing everyone underfoot. Saudi Arabia allows more personal autonomy in general, but demands total religious obedience.

Reports the Commission, "The 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 interfering with private religious practice. The government also continues to be involved in financing activities throughout the world that support extreme religious intolerance, hatred, and, in some cases, violence toward non-Muslims and disfavored Muslims."

The ever-tightening grip of Iran's Islamist rulers has reduced religious as well as political liberty. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitic rantings are well known. The situation is deteriorating sharply "for religious minorities and for Baha'is, Sufi Muslims, and Evangelical Christians in particular. All minority groups faced arrests, imprisonment, other forms of detention, and harassment," reports the Commission.

"Sectarian and religiously motivated violence" bedevil Pakistan. Legislation, including against blasphemy, "frequently result in imprisonment on account of religion or belief and/or vigilante violence against the accused."

China has become an economic behemoth and is counting on increased prestige as a result of the 2008 Olympics. Yet the communist regime runs scared in the face of growing religious faith.

Believers are arrested, jailed, and tortured. Reports the Commission: "Every religious community in China continues to be subject to serious restrictions, state control, and repression. The most severe religious freedom abuses are directed against Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Roman Catholics, house church and unregistered Protestants, and spiritual groups such as the Falun Gong."

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two generally thuggish states that register religious groups, and then harass registered as well as unregistered believers. (Many of the victims are Muslims.)

Eritrea also punishes all believers. Explained the Commission, that country's government systematically violates religious freedom through "a prolonged ban on public activities by all religious groups that are not officially recognized; arbitrary denials of recognition; closures of places of worship; disruption of private religious and social gatherings of members of unregistered groups; arbitrary arrests and detention without charge of their members; and the mistreatment or torture of religious detainees, sometimes resulting in death."

Finally, the Commission points to Vietnam, upgraded last fall by the State Department. The Commission points to "continued arrests and detentions of individuals in part because of their religious activities and continued severe religious freedom restrictions targeting some ethnic minority Protestants and Buddhists, Vietnamese Mennonites, Hao Hoa Buddhists, and monks and nuns associated with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam." Similarly, the group International Christian Concern includes Vietnam in its "Hall of Shame," explaining that Vietnam "remains one of the most difficult places to live as a Christian."

AS IF THERE WEREN'T ENOUGH religious oppressors, the Commission also maintains a watch list. Eight nations reside there: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, and Nigeria. In all but Belarus and Cuba Islamic fundamentalism is the problem.

As noted earlier, Iraq's government is unwilling to even try to protect religious minorities. In Afghanistan, says the Commission, "the failure or inability of the Afghan government to exercise authority effectively outside Kabul contributes to a progressively deteriorating situation for religious freedom."

The Commission cited Bangladesh because of "increasing Islamist radicalism and violence and the threatening conditions for and discrimination against religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadis." In Egypt "serious religious freedom violations affect Coptic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Baha'is, as well as members of minority Muslim communities, all of whom are also subject to religiously-motivated attacks."

In Indonesia the Commission points to "ongoing sectarian violence," "forcible closures of places of worship belonging to religious minorities," and "growing political power and influence of religious extremists, who harass and sometimes instigate violence against moderate Muslim leaders and members of religious minorities." Nigeria continues to see "violent communal conflicts along religious lines, the expansion of sharia into the criminal codes of several northern states, and discrimination against minority communities of Christians and Muslims."

Belarus and Cuba act as, respectively, authoritarian former Communist and continuing Communist states. In Cuba, reports the Commission, "Both registered and unregistered religious groups continued to experience varying degrees of official interference, harassment, and repression."

OBVIOUSLY, THERE IS MUCH WORK to be done to promote freedom of religious conscience around the globe. Alas, the Commission doesn't have much good to say about the U.S. government's response. There is widespread suspicion that the State Department raised Vietnam's rating and toned down criticism of Saudi Arabia for political reasons.

Moreover, the process of Expedited Removal prevents some refugees from making their case for asylum before being deported. The Bush administration has accepted shockingly few Iraqis as refugees. The Patriot Act bizarrely blocks admittance of refugees who have fought against abusive regimes. The Commission opined that it had "repeatedly expressed concern over inadequate training of consular and other Foreign Service Officers in refugee and resettlement issues." Aiding victims of religious persecution just isn't a priority in Washington.

There is no easy answer to religious persecution. Even if policymakers were more concerned, the U.S. government's options would be limited. Iraq demonstrates how even the best-intentioned military intervention can backfire.

The real work will have to be done by the rest of us. We must educate the public about countries that oppress. We must protest, embarrass and punish the worst offenders. We must aid the persecuted and offer sanctuary to the oppressed. And we must pray.

Americans complain about everything from irresponsible politicians to high taxes. Fair enough. But we live charmed lives compared to most people around the globe. The Apostle Paul wrote that "those who have been given a trust must prove faithful." (1 Cor. 4:2) We must remember, and fight for, our brothers and sisters around the globe who can only dream of the liberties that we take for granted.

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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).