It should be no surprise that communist states persecute religious believers. Whether China, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, or Vietnam — thankfully, the infamous Evil Empire has shrunk over the last three decades — the people’s purported representatives don’t want the people to have any loyalties above politics.
Unfortunately, it also should be no surprise that majority Muslim states persecute religious believers. That doesn’t mean that all Muslims believe in persecuting minority faiths, of course. However, driven by often violent activists and the acquiescence if not support of popular majorities, almost all governments of nations with an Islamic majority engage in discrimination, at least, and very often much more. Countries that claim a special commitment to promote the faith — Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan come to mind — treat Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Bahais, and members of other minority faiths with special brutality.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest report, and the news is bad. USCIRF recommended that the State Department designate 15 states as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). The rating comes with sanctions, though State often suspends the penalties. For instance, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia always is near the top of the Commission’s naughty list, but never pays a price. Indeed, President Joe Biden will be visiting the Kingdom, where he plans a symbolic kowtow to the Saudi royals.
Countries on the CPC list are regulars, unfortunately. China, North Korea, and Vietnam are communist. Russia is former communist and authoritarian. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are former communist, authoritarian, and Muslim. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are Muslim. Nigeria is divided, but Islamic radicals play a disproportionate role. Burma is authoritarian and Buddhist nationalist. India is Hindu nationalist and increasingly undemocratic. Eritrea is highly authoritarian.
USCIRF recommends another dozen nations for the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL). They are bad, just not quite as bad as CPCs, and follow a similar pattern. Cuba is communist. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are former communist, authoritarian, and majority Muslim. Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, and Turkey are majority Muslim. Central African Republic and Nicaragua are majority Christian and authoritarian, though the purpose in their repression differs.
Again, there is little surprise in the identity of the chief malefactors. Most have been CPCs or SWLs before, though the level of persecution sometimes varies over time. A perennial contender for worst oppressor is North Korea, which “forbids competing ideologies — including religious ones — and treats religion as an existential threat,” noted USCIRF.
China is almost as bad. President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping wants believers to treat the CCP as supreme: “In 2021, religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated. The government continued to vigorously implement its ‘sinicization of religion’ policy and demand that religious groups and adherents support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology.” Churches are forced to post Xi’s picture and sayings, as if he awaits the first vacancy in the Trinity.
The American Left continues to idealize the Cuban dictatorship, but it also feels threatened by criticism, including from people of faith. Religious freedom in Cuba remains highly restricted. Reported the Commission: “The Cuban government continued to use surveillance, harassment, and ad hoc interpretations of legislation to suppress religious freedom and persecute religious freedom advocates. During 2021, the Cuban government’s crackdown on widespread protests severely impacted religious communities.” Feeling similarly threatened by popular opposition to his increasingly dictatorial rule, Nicaraguan “President Daniel Ortega used his government and supporters to persecute members of the clergy, worshipers, and Catholic organizations.”
Sometimes there is good news. For instance, Sudan was a CPC from 1999 to 2018. The overthrow of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir led to a dramatic improvement in religious liberty. However, last fall the military staged a coup against the transitional civilian government. Although Sudan has not regressed to CPC or SWL status, USCIRF warned about “the potential for backsliding.”
In Burma/Myanmar the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has ruled for six decades. The regime always has been hostile to Christians who resisted its control, but the situation has greatly worsened since the 2021 coup overthrowing the quasi-democratic government created by the generals a decade before. Explained the Commission:
Conditions for ethnoreligious minorities, such as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya and Christian Chin, deteriorated alongside the breakdown of order and violations of civil and political rights. The Tatmadaw targeted houses of worship, faith leaders, and religious communities in its crackdown on opposition. The Tatmadaw arrested religious leaders, including those from the Buddhist majority, for opposing the military junta.
Perhaps the most dramatic, and tragic change came in Afghanistan. Even when the U.S.-backed government was in control, religious minorities were at great risk. Now the situation is far worse. USCIRF lamented:
The Taliban’s victory was calamitous for many reasons, including the detrimental effect it had on religious freedom. USCIRF has long raised concern that the Taliban’s brutal application of its extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam violates the freedom of religion or belief of all Afghans who do not adhere to that interpretation, including Muslims and adherents of other faiths or beliefs.
These fears have been born out.
The status of religious liberty can be analyzed in many ways. It is difficult for Americans to understand the virulence of the hostility demonstrated by some regimes toward either religion generally (China, North Korea, Eritrea) or minority faiths (Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Pakistan). In some the state ideology is atheism, which is threatened by the belief that political leaders are subject to someone greater (North Korea, China). In others the government seeks political advantage by identifying with one faith or defending the majority faith (India, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Turkey).
Non-governmental violence is widespread in some nations (Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria). Consider Pakistan, which last year, explained the Commission, “was filled with reports of targeted killings, lynching, mob violence, forced conversions, and desecration of houses of worship and cemeteries. These violations targeted religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Shi’a Muslim communities.”
Democracy is no barrier to persecution. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has blood on his hands from anti-Muslim riots when he was a state governor. And “in 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies — including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda — that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities.”
The problem of religious persecution is large and growing. People in six of the world’s nine most populous nations (China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia) — some 3.7 billion people total — are not free to exercise the most fundamental freedom of conscience and address the transcendent as they understand it. In those nations, and many smaller ones, people cannot worship freely, let alone live a life of faith.
America’s allies/friends/partners can be as bad as America’s enemies. India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and (pre-Taliban control) Afghanistan all have or had security relationships with America and persecute religious minorities. Yet President Joe Biden is planning a visit to the Kingdom to make a symbolic kowtow as if it was the superpower. Wrote USCIRF: “Saudi Arabia continued to violate religious freedom egregiously, targeting religious minorities in particular.”
Nor is U.S. military action a solution: Washington’s blundering intervention dramatically worsened the situation of religious minorities, directly in Iraq and Syria and indirectly in Pakistan. The sectarian war triggered by the invasion of Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them Christians. Others fled to Kurdistan and Syria, where they were subsequently victimized by the Islamic State and various jihadist groups as Washington sought to overthrow another secular dictatorship. These disasters have greatly accelerated Christianity’s disappearance from the region of its birth.
Religious liberty is under threat around the world. It is a basic human right, essential to deciding how individuals, families, and communities respond to the transcendent. People of faith should work together and alongside all those committed to a free society to demand that governments and people respect the freedom of conscience of all. Few other tasks are as important.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics and Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.