State of Religious Freedom Abroad Remains Poor by Katrina Lantos Swett

On April 30, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which I chair, released its 2013 annual report on the state of freedom of religion or belief across the globe.

USCIRF finds that religious freedom conditions remain deeply problematic due largely to forces which include persistent and violent religious extremism and how governments reflect these forces or respond to them. As our report details, governments as well as extremists target religious minorities and majority dissenters, with some committing atrocities, including torture and murder. Many governments also repress religious freedom through discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements, draconian edicts, and detention and imprisonment.

As part of our report, we recommend that the U.S. State Department re-designate eight nations as “countries of particular concern” or CPCs, marking them as among the world’s worst religious freedom violators: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.  We find that seven other states also meet the CPC threshold and also should be designated:  Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

This year, we’ve placed eight countries on our Tier 2 List, which replaces our previously-used Watch List designation: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia. We found that the abuses perpetrated or tolerated are serious enough to meet at least one of three criteria, but not all, of the “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” CPC benchmark as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Religious freedom abuses affect an alarming number and range of people and communities around the world, such as Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Coptic Christians in Egypt; Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Protestant house church members and Falun Gong in China; Baha’is in Iran; Ahmadis and Christians in Pakistan; and Muslims in Muslim-majority nations like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan and in non-Muslim nations like Russia.

In Burma, despite much-applauded political reforms, an appalling religious freedom situation has yet to show measurable signs of improvement. Sectarian violence and severe abuses of freedom and dignity against ethnic minority Christians and Muslims continue to occur with impunity.

In Egypt, the government has repeatedly failed or been slow to protect Copts and other minorities from violence. Cairo still prosecutes, convicts, and jails people for “contempt” or “defamation” of religion, while the new constitution includes several problematic provisions relating to religious freedom.

In Nigeria and Pakistan, extremism and impunity have fueled enormous levels of violence threatening both countries. Attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria enflame Christian/Muslim tensions, while in Pakistan, assaults against Shi’i Muslims are pervasive.

In Russia, freedom of religion suffered serious erosion amid a rising tide of human rights abuses. In Indonesia, extremist violence coupled by government arrests of individuals considered religiously deviant threatens its tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism.

Our 2013 report also spotlights countries and regions in which religious freedom trends are worth monitoring--Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and Western Europe--as well as a number of themes occurring across nations, ranging from changes in constitutions to violations by non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, and from laws against blasphemy and defamation to the legal retreat from religious freedom in post-Communist countries.

Religious freedom is both a pivotal human right under international law and a key factor that determines whether a country experiences lasting stability or continued chaos. Moreover, a number of the nations we monitor for religious freedom violations already top the U.S. foreign policy agenda.  It follows that successful U.S. foreign policy will rank religious freedom high in its priorities of issues and concerns.

We recommend that the White House adopt a whole-of-government strategy to guide U.S. religious freedom promotion and that Secretary of State Kerry promptly designate CPCs, before currently designated actions expire later this year.

Katrina Lantos Swett is the Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).