The United States should give a higher priority to advancing global religious freedom as a matter of national security, says a major new survey. The persecution of people of faith is inherently dangerous because it has the effect of empowering extremists at the expense of moderate religious believers, according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“The state of international religious freedom is increasingly dire due to the presence of forces that fuel instability. These forces include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett (left), USCIRF’s Chair.
“Extremists target religious minorities and dissenters from majority religious communities for violence, including physical assaults and even murder,” she said. “Authoritarian governments also repress religious freedom through intricate webs of discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements and draconian edicts.”
The Boston bombings highlighted the implications of religious intolerance, she said. The report is notably scathing about religious repression in the former Soviet bloc states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia, including the north Caucasus.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are among the worst violators of religious liberty, but the Commission has also expressed concern about the recent kidnapping of two Christian bishops in Syria. The commission reserves the right to name Syria a “country of particular concern,” said Lantos Swett.
“Helping create and protect civic space for diverse religious opinions on matters of religion and society can help counter the rise of violent religious extremism,” its 2013 annual report (excerpted below) suggests.
The U.S. and its allies should “increase and strengthen diplomatic, development and military engagement to promote human rights, especially religious freedom,” it concludes.
But the Syrian case highlights a difficulty with the Commission’s mandate, laid out by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998,” says The Economist:
The system assumes that most religious repression is practiced by state authorities, and can be corrected by putting pressure on governments. But some of the world’s worst persecution is practiced by what political scientists call “non-state actors” who may be relatively immune to diplomatic pressure. Nobody knows for certain who kidnapped those Syrian bishops but it happened in a rebel-controlled area, so calling the government names might not help very much.
IRFA requires the administration to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) those regimes that engage in or tolerate “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty, with “particularly severe” defined as violations that are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious,” including torture, prolonged detention without charge, disappearances, or “other flagrant denial[s] of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” After a country is designated a CPC, the President is legally required to take action.
The 2013 recommends that eight countries – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan – be re-designated as CPCs, and proposes that seven other countries – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam – should also be designated as such.
A country is included on USCIRF’s Tier 2 list, on the threshold of CPC status, when the violations are particularly severe and meet at least one of the three elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard. USCIRF deems that eight countries – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, and Russia – meet the Tier 2 standard, which designation provides advance notice of negative trends that could become severe violations of religious freedom, giving policymakers an opportunity to pre-empt, prevent or diminish the violations.
An extract from the report:
Justifications for Tier 1 CPC Designation
Burma: Ongoing and important political reforms in Burma have yet to significantly improve the situation for freedom of religion and belief. During the reporting period, most religious freedom violations occurred against ethnic minority Christian and Muslim communities, with serious abuses against mainly Christian civilians during military interventions in Kachin State and sectarian violence by societal actors targeting Muslims in Rakhine (Arakan) State. In addition, Buddhist monks suspected of anti-government activities were detained or removed from their pagodas, and at least eight monks remain imprisoned for participating in peaceful demonstrations.
China: The Chinese government continues to perpetrate particularly severe violations of the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Religious groups and individuals considered to threaten national security or social harmony, or whose practices are deemed beyond the vague legal definition of “normal religious activities,” are illegal and face severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses. Religious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims remain particularly acute, as the government broadened its efforts to discredit and imprison religious leaders, control the selection of clergy, ban certain religious gatherings, and control the distribution of religious literature by members of these groups.
Egypt: During the reporting period, the Egyptian transitional and newly elected governments have made some improvements related to freedom of religion or belief and there was positive societal progress between religious communities. Nevertheless, during a February 2013 visit to Egypt, USCIRF found that the Egyptian government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Despite a significant decrease in the number of fatalities and injuries from sectarian violence during the reporting period, Coptic Orthodox Christians, and their property, continued to experience sustained attacks.
Eritrea: Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea. These violations include: thousands of religious prisoners; arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges of members of unregistered religious groups; a prolonged ban on public religious activities; revocation of citizenship rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses; interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups; and inordinate delays in responding to registration applications from religious groups.
Iran: 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. Iran is a constitutional, theocratic republic that discriminates against its citizens on the basis of religion or belief. During the past year, the already poor religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate, especially for religious minorities, in particular for Baha’is as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims. …………
Iraq: Over the last several years the Iraqi government has made efforts to increase security for religious sites and worshippers, provide a stronger voice for Iraq’s smallest minorities in parliament, and revise secondary school textbooks to portray minorities in a more positive light. Nevertheless, the government of Iraq continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, including violent religiously-motivated attacks.
Nigeria: The government of Nigeria continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom that lead to particularly severe violations affecting all Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim. For many years, the government has failed to bring those responsible for sectarian violence to justice, prevent and contain acts of such violence, or prevent reprisal attacks. As a result since 1999, more than 14,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians. Boko Haram, a militant group that espouses an extreme and violent interpretation of Islam, benefits from this culture of impunity and lawlessness.
North Korea: The recent leadership transition in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has not improved human rights or religious freedom conditions. North Korea remains one of the world’s most repressive regimes, where severe religious freedom abuses continue. In the past year, refugees and defectors reported discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity or engaging in “fortune-telling;” and the mistreatment and imprisonment of asylum-seekers repatriated from China.
Pakistan: The government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief. Sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic, especially against Shi’i Muslims, and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith. Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the anti-Ahmadi laws, have fostered an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism.
Saudi Arabia: During the reporting period, the Saudi government made improvements in policies and practices related to freedom of religion or belief, but remains a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for violations of freedom of religion or belief. The Saudi government continues to ban most forms of public religious expression other than that of the government’s own interpretation of one school of Sunni Islam; prohibits any public non-Muslim places of worship; and periodically interferes with the private religious practice of non-Muslim expatriate workers in the country.
Sudan: Systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in Sudan. While religious freedom conditions greatly improved in South Sudan and improved in Sudan during the Interim Period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war in January 2005, conditions in Sudan have deteriorated since South Sudan’s independence. ……………
Tajikistan: Tajikistan’s restrictions on religious freedom remained in place during the reporting period, and systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue. The government suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control, and imprisons individuals on unproven criminal allegations linked to religious activity or affiliation. These restrictions and abuses primarily affect the country’s majority Muslim community, but also target minority communities, particularly Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses……..
Turkmenistan: Severe religious freedom violations persist in Turkmenistan. Despite a few limited reforms undertaken by President Berdimuhamedov after he took office in 2007, the country’s laws, policies, and practices continue to violate international human rights norms, including those on freedom of religion or belief. Police raids and other harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continue. The repressive 2003 religion law remains in force, causing major difficulties for religious groups to function legally.
Uzbekistan: Since Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, its government has systematically and egregiously violated freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights. The Uzbek government harshly penalizes individuals for independent religious activity regardless of their religious affiliation. A restrictive religion law facilitates state control over all religious communities, particularly the majority Muslim community. The government arrests Muslims and represses individuals, groups, and mosques that do not conform to officially-prescribed practices or that it claims are associated with extremist political programs. ………….
Vietnam: The government of Vietnam continues to expand control over all religious activities, severely restrict independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority. Religious activity continues to grow in Vietnam and the government has made some important changes in the past decade in response to international attention, including from its designation as a “country of particular concern” (CPC). Nevertheless, authorities continue to imprison or detain individuals for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy………..
Justification of Placement on Tier 2
Afghanistan: Conditions for religious freedom are exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and minority religious communities. Individuals who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal actions that violate international standards. The threat of violence by the Taliban and other armed groups is an increasing reality……
Azerbaijan: Despite the government’s claims of official tolerance, religious freedom conditions in Azerbaijan deteriorated over the past few years. During the reporting period, religious organizations were closed and non-violent religious activity was punished with detentions, fines and other penalties.
Cuba: Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite some improvements for government-approved religious groups. Reports indicate a tripling in the number of violations, such as detentions and sporadic arrests of clergy and religious leaders; harassment of religious leaders and laity; interference in religious groups’ internal affairs, and pressure to prevent democracy and human rights activists from participating in religious activities.
India: There has been no large-scale communal violence against religious minorities in India since 2008, and in recent years the Indian government has created special investigative and judicial structures in an effort to address previous such attacks. Nevertheless, in the past year, progress in achieving justice through these structures for the victims of past incidents continued to be slow and ineffective. …
Indonesia: Indonesia is a stable and robust democracy with political institutions able to advance and protect human rights. In recent years, however, the country’s traditions of religious tolerance and pluralism have been strained by ongoing sectarian tensions, societal violence, and the arrest of individuals considered religiously “deviant.” While the government has addressed past sectarian violence and effectively curtailed terrorist networks, religious minorities continue to experience intimidation, discrimination, and violence. ……
Kazakhstan: Religious freedom conditions in Kazakhstan deteriorated in 2012. In late 2011, the Kazakh government adopted a repressive new religion law, which resulted in a sharp drop in the number of registered religious groups in 2012. Unregistered religious activity is illegal, and the activities of registered groups are strictly regulated. ………..
Laos: Serious religious freedom abuses continue in Laos. The Lao legal code restricts religious practice, and the government is either unable or unwilling to curtail ongoing religious freedom abuses in some provincial areas. In the past year, provincial officials violated the freedom of religion or belief of ethnic minority Protestants through detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith. …..
Russia: During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated further and major problems discussed in previous USCIRF reports continue. These include the application of laws on religious and non-governmental organizations to violate the rights of allegedly “non-traditional” religious groups and Muslims; the use of the extremism law against religious groups and individuals not known to use or advocate violence, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses and readers of Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi…………In addition, an arsenal of restrictive new laws against civil society was passed in 2012, and a draft blasphemy bill before the Duma, would, if passed, further curtail the freedoms of religion, belief and expression.