The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released its 2016 Annual Report. “By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015,” it stated in the opening paragraph.
The report said that the number of those held as prisoners of conscience, those imprisoned for reasons of religion, “remains astonishingly widespread.”
Religious freedom, the report explained, “deserves a seat at the table when nations discuss humanitarian, security, and other pressing issues.”
The report particularly focused its attention on violations of religious freedom in a series of countries with the worst offences. These were divided into three categories, with the most serious violations occurring in the “countries of particular concern (CPC).”
USCIRF recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate nine countries that had previously already been on the CPC list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
USCIRF also recommended that another eight other countries should be added to the CPC category: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
Then, there is a “tier 2” list that covers governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious, but which do not reach the level of severity of what happens in a CPC. Ten countries are on the USCIRF list in the 2016 report: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.
Lastly, there are nations that while not arriving at the first two levels also give cause for concern regarding religious freedom. They are Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Horn of Africa, Kyrgyzstan, and the entire region of Western Europe.
Human rights challenges
Turning to the country reports, the first ones examined were on the CPC list. Regarding Burma USCIRF acknowledged the positive developments with a peaceful election and transition to a civilian government. Nevertheless, the report stated that the new government faces “myriad human rights challenges.”
Serious violations of religious freedom continue to occur, both at the hands of government and non-government organizations. The report drew particular attention to the situation of the Rohingya Muslims. As well, at least 100,000 Kachin, primarily Christians, remain internally displaced in camps due to ongoing conflicts with Burma’s military, the report observed.
In general there is widespread intolerance towards minority groups, which is officially codified in a series of “race and religion bills.”
In China the report noted there continue to be severe religious freedom violations.
“While the Chinese government sought to further assert itself on the global stage, at home it pursued policies to diminish the voices of individuals and organizations advocating for human rights and genuine rule of law,” said the report.
Among the actions cited in the report was the widespread removal of crosses and the demolition of churches, violent repression of minority Muslim and Buddhist groups, and the incarceration of those defending both human rights in general and also religious freedom.
By some estimates, the report said, the number of cross removals and church demolitions totaled at least 1,500, with many of those who opposed these acts being arrested
Although, the report explained, more than half of China’s population is unaffiliated with any religion or belief this still leaves a large number who are actively religious. According to USCIRF there are nearly 300 million Chinese who practice some form of folk religion; more than 246 million Buddhists; at least 68 million Christians; nearly 25 million Muslims; and less than 3.6 million apiece practice Hinduism, Judaism, or Taoism.
In Iran the condition of religious freedom continued to deteriorate in the past year, especially for Baha’is, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims, according to the report.
Iran has been designated as a CPC by the State Department since 1999, but in spite of international protests 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,” said USCIRF.
Regarding the situation of Christians the report explained that since 2010, authorities have arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 550 Christians throughout the country. As of February 2016, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.
Another of the worst cases examined in the report was that of North Korea, which has, the report said, a “deplorable human rights record.”
Reliable data is hard to obtain but the report put the number of Christians at somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000. Information on the number of adherents to other faiths is unobtainable, the report said.
Christianity is the religious group that is most severely treated by the government and once imprisoned, Christians face harsher conditions than other prisoners.
“Given the high cost to themselves and their families if caught, many North Koreans likely self-suppress their own consciences, creating a multiplier effect of the government’s repressive policies,” the report commented.
These few examples from the latest USCIRF report of the violations of religious freedom only begin to describe the harsh conditions faced by many millions of believers around the world. It can only be hoped this topic will indeed receive the attention it deserves in international forums.