Annual report tracks ‘serious and sustained assault’ on religious freedom

This year’s report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) adds eight more countries—Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan,Vietnam, Tajikistan, Syria, and Central African Republic—to its list of “countries of particular concern.”

May 03, 2016

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Washington D.C., United States

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Bettina Krause, communication director, International Religious Liberty Association

The state of religious freedom worldwide has deteriorated over the past 12 months, according to a report released May 1 by an independent United States advisory body. The 270-page report compiled by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) documents continuing abuses in 33 countries and regions, but focuses particularly this year on the plight of prisoners of conscience and the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing religious persecution.

Among those who fled religious abuses last year, according to the report, were thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, an estimated half million Eritreans escaping their country’s repressive regime, and millions of men, women, and children, both Christians and Muslims, who were displaced by ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq. 

The report also cited a dozens of examples of religiously motivated imprisonment over the past 12 months, including a poet and artist in Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced to death after being accused of spreading atheism. His punishment was later changed to 800 lashes and eight years in prison. Among continuing state abuses in China documented by the report are a Christian pastor and his wife who are serving a 12-year prison sentence for opposing a government campaign to remove crosses from the top of churches.

Dr. Ganoune Diop, the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, calls the report’s focus on prisoners of conscience “a troubling confirmation of longstanding global trends.” 

“In reality, though, there is no way to verify the scale of this tragedy,” says Diop. “Many cases are never publicized, and untold numbers of men and women around the world suffer imprisonment or worse under laws that enforce a particular religious worldview.”  

Diop points to the case of Sajjad Masih, a 32-year-old Adventist Church member in Pakistan who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 after being falsely accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. 

“Laws that oppress religious minorities on behalf of a majority faith not only run counter to international law and human rights norms, but they distort the very nature of faith itself,” says Diop. “The Adventist Church believes that freedom of conscience is the foundation of true faith. And this is a freedom that is grounded in the innate dignity of every human being—an inalienable gift of our Creator.”

Dwayne Leslie, an associate director of the PARL department, says that the Adventist Church continues to advocate for greater awareness of religious freedom abuses, and for intervention by governments. This month, the church will partner with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in downtown Washington DC to hold an “International Religious Liberty Summit.” Leslie, who is organizing the event, says it will bring together public leaders, religious liberty advocates, and journalists to consider current challenges to religious freedom around the world, and explore ways to collaborate on shared goals.  

Presenters at the summit will include former Representative Frank Wolf, who was a leading supporter of international religious freedom legislation throughout his congressional career; Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the US State Department, and The Honorable Erastus J.O. Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union. Among the journalists who will address the group will be E.J. Dionne, nationally known political commentator and opinion writer for the Washington Post and Lynn Sweet, Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.   

According to Nelu Burcea, the associate director of PARL who represents the church at the United Nations in New York and Geneva, the USCIRF report is “a potent reminder that the church and all those who advocate for religious freedom must keep these abuses before the international community.” While it is important for individual governments, such as the United States, to take unilateral action in support of international religious freedom, says Burcea, real progress requires a concerted international effort to pressure noncompliant countries to fulfill their obligations under international law.  

The full USCIRF report can be seen here. The Commission is a federal government agency that was created 18 years ago to advise the US Executive and Congress on how best to promote religious freedom internationally.

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