International Religious Freedom in Review

Fifteenth Annual Report by U.S. Commission

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On May 1 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its report for 2014. The report documented violations in 32 countries and made a number of recommendations.

It is the fifteenth annual report since the Commission was established and to mark the anniversary the report also examined the record of government policy by the United States in dealing with religious freedom.

“With religious freedom abuses occurring daily around the world against people of all faiths and those without religious faith, the United States must by words and deeds stand in solidarity with the persecuted,” declared USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George.

The worst violators in the report are designated as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs). The Commission recommended that the Secretary of State maintain on this list the existing

CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The report also urged the government to put another eight countries on the CPC list: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

A second group of countries do not meet the grounds for being regarded as CPSs, but still experience serious violations of religious freedom. They are what the report terms Tier 2 countries, while the CPCs are Tier 1.

For 2014, USCIRF nominated the following countries for Tier 2 status: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.

Among the many details about each of these countries some stand out for their serious nature. In China, for example, the report highlights what it terms “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Relations between Beijing and the Vatican remain problematic the report noted, with dozens of clergy, including three bishops, in detention.

Systematic violations

Egypt is very much in the news regarding violations of rights and while the report admits the new constitution is an improvement, it warns that it remains to be seen how it is implemented. Moreover, many discriminatory laws remain in place.

In Iran the report observed that the government: “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.”

According to USCIRF since 2010 authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained about 400 Christians.

The level of religiously motivated violence in Iraq increased in 2013, the report said, particularly in the areas in the North that previously had been relatively safe for minorities.

Nigeria is another country with grave problems of religiously motivated violence and the report explained that while the government itself does not engage in religious persecution it “tolerates severe violations through its failure to bring to justice those responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, or to prevent or contain sectarian violence.”

Pakistan, the report continued, represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom among those countries not designated as a CPC.

In the last year conditions hit an all-time low, and, the report added: “Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadi laws are widely used to violate religious freedoms and foster a climate of impunity.

The blasphemy laws do not even require proof of intent or evidence to be presented following allegations being made.

Overview of policy performance

A novelty in this fifteenth-anniversary report is the review of how well the government has performed in its policies when it comes to international religious freedom. USCIRF made a number of recommendations on how the government could improve its performance.

It urged high-level interventions by the President, the Secretary of State and members of Congress. In addition, the report argued in favor of greater action to be taken against CPCs, and for greater resources to be dedicated to ensuring the issue of religious freedom be given the prominence it deserves.

The report also called for intervention by Congress if administration officials do not take action on religious freedom. This reflected the dissatisfaction expressed in the report over how the position of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has been downgraded and that the staff numbers in the International Religious Freedom Office have been cut.

Another point of contention mentioned by USCIRF is the reluctance by the government to adopt the CPC recommendations. As well, even when nations are named as CPCs not much action is taken against them. In fact, currently, the report said, there are no punitive actions in force against any of the CPCs.

We must recognize, the report stated, “that religious freedom concerns frequently are ignored or overlooked in U.S. foreign policy.”

Religious freedom should be an integral part of American foreign policy, the report urged. There also needs to be a re-thinking of the measures that can be implemented to pressure countries to cease serious violations of freedom.

Those interested in defending religious freedom can only hope that the many recommendations made in the report are given serious attention.

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On the NET:

Full text of the report –

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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