Religious freedom across the globe is under assault, from Islamist militias displacing the centuries-old Christian community in Iraq to churches being bombed in Egypt and Pakistan.
“The situation for religious freedom worldwide is really bad,” said Robert George, a Princeton University political science professor and vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Almost three-fourths of people in the world live under regimes that either themselves regularly violate people’s rights to religious freedom or that stand by and permit private actors, terrorist groups and mobs to violate people’s basic rights to religious freedom while the governments do nothing.”
George said the 2013 International Religious Freedom Report the U.S. State Department presented to Congress on July 28 gives an accurate picture of the precarious state of religious freedom across the globe, though he lamented the exclusion of two countries — Vietnam and Pakistan — from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious liberty. “Those are two of the very worst offenders in the world. Pakistan in particular is at the top of our list, the one country that most warranted CPC designation. I’m puzzled,” said George.
Need for vigilance
The report says that in 2013 the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and adherents of other faiths were forced to flee their homes because of their religious beliefs.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram — an Islamist militia — killed more than 1,000 people in 2013, including Christians and Muslims. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — an extremist Sunni militia condemned by even al-Qaida — has forced Christians to convert to Islam, flee Mosul or face certain death. In Pakistan, militants murdered at least 85 Christians in a church bombing last year.
“When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten the people that they target, they also threaten their country’s own stability,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said during a July news conference to highlight the report’s findings.
Communist North Korea maintains an “absolute and brutal repression” of religious activity, arresting people for carrying Bibles in public, Kerry said. China has destroyed churches, and last month Chinese authorities sentenced a Christian pastor to 12 years in prison for advocating for his church community. Chinese authorities have also arrested Tibetan monks for carrying pictures of the Dalai Lama.
“The persecution that has been documented for years in places like China and North Korea and Vietnam continues, and elsewhere, in Burma and in many parts of the Muslim world — Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, northern Nigeria, northern Egypt, parts of Pakistan, for example — it has intensified to the points of targeted religious cleansing,” said Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
Shea said that the State Department’s report is “accurate in identifying this as a crisis defining our time. As we are seeing today in Iraq, the religious cleansing of Christians and other non-Sunni Muslims from Mosul, and thus the displacement of religious communities, continues in 2014 as well.”
The persecution of Christian minorities is the most widespread, she added. “Everywhere that persecution is found, Christians are among the persecuted. ... This is a crime against humanity.”
Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said during last month’s State Department news conference that the most significant abuses of religious freedom rarely arise naturally from differences among ordinary people. There is usually the additional factor of political forces using cynical calculation to maintain power or exploit religious differences for political ends.
“It’s a very old tactic,” he said. “Pick a minority religious group — Jews, Bahais, Ahmadiyya, Copts, Shias in some part of the Muslim world, Sunnis in others — cultivate hatred and fear of members of that group and then use it to build support for your side, or at least distract people from opposing you.”
Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the secretary of state can designate “Countries of Particular Concern” for perpetrating or allowing systemic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, prolonged detention without charges and abductions. This year, Kerry designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The CPC designation triggers a menu of diplomatic and trade actions that range from recalling an ambassador to passing trade restrictions. George said a CPC designation can motivate some countries to change their policies toward religious minorities. Vietnam, after it was named a CPC nation in 2004, took steps to improve religious freedom protections until the State Department removed it from the list three years later, at which point Vietnam slid back into its previous posture.
“We need more pressure from our own country,” George said. “We need to streamline refugee status in our own country for Christians fleeing persecution in Iraq and Syria. I’m glad for what the administration is doing. I just want more and I want it faster.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been speaking out on growing threats to religious freedom at home, with perhaps the most notable example being the federal government’s contraception mandate in President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare reform law. While not commenting on domestic affairs, George added: “The most important thing the United States can do at the top of the list to promote religious freedom abroad is to honor and protect religious freedom at home.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.