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Report: Religious freedom deteriorating around the world

A Pakistani refugee, a member of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic minority sect, cries as she leaves a detention center with her family on a bus in Bangkok on June 6, 2011. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is often targeted in attacks by Islamic extremists. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Damir Sagolj *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM, originally transmitted on May 3, 2016.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Religious freedom remains under “serious and sustained assault” around the globe, according to a new annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“At best, in most of the countries we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve,” commission chairman Robert P. George said Monday (May 2). “At worst, they have spiraled further downward.”

The independent government advisory body recommended that the State Department add the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam to the U.S. government’s list of the world’s worst abusers of human rights and religious freedom. Of the 17 countries USCIRF says are of “particular concern,” only 10 have been recognized by the State Department.

The official list remained unchanged for nearly a decade, until last month’s rare addition of Tajikistan, a Sunni-majority country where a severely restrictive 2009 law allows the government to crack down on all independent religious activity, particularly that of Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Officials there use concerns of extremism to justify monitoring and suppressing acts of worship: in the past year, police there have forced thousands of women to remove their headscarves and detained hundreds of thousands of bearded men.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body.

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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body.

“The incarceration of prisoners of conscience, including religious prisoners, remains astonishingly widespread,” George said. He pointed to China, which has imprisoned some opposed to a state campaign to remove crosses from churches, and Iran’s majority-Shiite regime, where Sunnis, Christians and Baha’is have been persecuted, imprisoned and even sentenced to death on dubious unrelated charges. And in Pakistan – which USCIRF recommended for recognition as a country of particular concern but, for the 14th year in a row, has been not been listed officially – more people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy charges than in any other nation in the world.

As much attention as was given to the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria, for which the USCIRF largely recycled its recommendations this year, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“I don’t think we can account for everything we’ve seen simply by reference to the refugee crisis in the Middle East,” George said, noting oppressive conditions for minorities in East Asia, where a Vietnamese religious freedom activist was imprisoned the day after meeting with a USCIRF ambassador. “The American public needs to understand that this is truly is a battle for ideas. Protecting our interests really does mean advancing our values, including our belief in religious freedom.”

Other areas of focus included rising anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim bigotry throughout Europe, the continuation of a “brutal legacy of persecution against Burma’s Rohingya Muslims” and the “negative trajectory” for Christians, Muslims and Sikhs living in India. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetoric has been positive in the Hindu-majority country, a USCIRF delegation was effectively denied visas in March.

Good news was scarce, but there may be hope. Last year’s report commended Nigeria, Cyprus and Sri Lanka’s new government for progress in promoting religious freedom and harmony. While Nigeria remains on the USCIRF’s list of countries of particular concern, Cyprus and Sri Lanka were let off the hook.

(Aysha Khan is an RNS correspondent)

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

10 Comments

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  • The USCIRF report says that Sikhs too have been victims of religious persecution in India. This is not true.

    India’s majority Hindus don’t view Sikhism as a minority religion. In India the Hindutva groups- who have long been known for their attacks on the religious minorities- have never targeted the Sikhs because they regard Sikhism as an offshoot of Hinduism.

    In India Muslims and Christians are victims of religious persecution. Hindutva groups have launched organized attacks on these two minority groups for a long time. Indian media often do not cover these reports in a professional manner. Religion News Service should report such stories in an unbiased style, the way we expect from the international media, to help the world know how Muslims and Christians are suffering in India because of their faith.

  • The majority of the countries– the China and Vietnam excluded– where religious freedom seems to be deteriorating are countries that are deeply religious. I would also exclude the US, because here, the deterioration of religious freedom is both imaginary and political propaganda, rather than real.

    Funny about that.

  • Yes, with rare exceptions, it is religious people who oppose religious freedom. And it’s the most fanatically religious people who are eager to utilize prison, torture, and/or murder to enforce their opposition to religious freedom . . . for everyone except themselves.

  • Of course this report looks at other nations, and ignores the deterioration of religious liberty here at home.

  • Yes, the entire Sikh community was targeted then. But it was not a Hindu or Hindutva attack. The story here is about the right wing Hindu groups. These groups have never targeted Sikhs.

  • So you are going from claiming Sikhs were not being targeted for persecution to quibbling over who is doing the persecuting.

  • So-called Religious Freedom is playing both sides and comes in multiple versions. One version in Mississippi and another in International sphere. All the versions and double-play help Xtian right to live as per cannon with no regards for equality. The so-called “Religious Freedom” helps organized&established religion and hurts individual religious liberty.

    Few Examples:-

    1) Double Dealing in free speech:-
    a)US IRF supports free speech:-
    USIRF opposes arrest of Mullah for describing Hindu Festival as ‘demonic'(1); In contrast, USIRF is mum,or supportive, in 23 other cases. As a result, USIRF gives false impression that India is persecuting those who insult Hinduism.
    b)USIRF does not support free speech:-
    – Arrest of a Hindu Youth for insulting Islam, on facebook, is portrayed as violation of Muslim Religious Freedom(2).
    – Minister Jyoti,who is a dalit woman,terming political opponent as ‘bastard’ is portrayed as discriminatory statement(3) but USIRF is silent on more disgusting statements by Sonia Gandhi&others.
    – Arrest of Varun Gandhi over alleged hate-speech was portrayed as violation of muslim religious freedom.
    – What is USCIRF fomenting:
    On Massacre of 5 Hindus, including Women,Children & 82 year old Monk Saraswati,USCIRF wrote that Monk Saraswati was fomenting (i.e. free-speech) violence against Christians and it opposed court verdict declaring 7 Christians guilty.

    2) Event: Sexual abuse of 20+ kids in India.
    US Dept of State 2008 Religious Freedom report paints Pastor Jacob John as
    innocent & vilified complainant.
    Fact: Pastor John Jacob faces charges of abusing 53 kids. 1 child is pregnant
    and 4 children died. Most of the cases are handled by Nagaland Police. India’s
    Nagaland State has 90%+ xtian population.

    3) Event: Tripura National liberation front, a christian terror group in india,
    attacks hindu ashram and kills head monk Swami Shanti Kali. All 18 branches of
    Shanti Kali Mission were forcibly closed.

    USCIRF coverage: none

    4) In last 15 years, 0 christians and 224 hindus are killed in place of worship
    attack in india but USCIRF reports give a very different impression.

    5) In 2014, 267 temples and 15 churches were vandalized/theft in Delhi attack
    but USCIRF report gives different impression.

    6)Event: Terrorist Attack at Bodhgaya India

    USCIRF portrayal: “NIA arrested Hindu priest.Protest ensued &..Priest
    released.”

    Fact: India Mujahideens arrested.Anti-attack vigil ensued.

    7) Event:99acre land to build Safe Shelter for Hindu Pilgrims in amarnath,
    kashmir.

    USCIRF portrayal: Lends voice to claims of terror outfits. Shows no concern for
    Pilgrim security and religious freedom to worship without fear.

    Fact:Amarnath piligrim massacre & terror attack on temp shelters is a
    recurring event.

    8) Event: 1980s Khalistan Sikh radical Terrorism,Punjab,India

    USCIRF portrayal: Victim: Muslims Accused: Hinduity

    Fact: Muslims are neither victim nor accused in Khalistan terrorism. 100s of
    Hindus passengers pulled out of Bus/Trains & shot dead in dozens of terror
    attacks. Total number of death exceeds 21,000.

    9) Event: Kashmir Islamist Terrorism

    USCIRF stmt: “Not a religious problem”

    Fact: Religion is the main factor.

    10) USCIRF wrote: India denies Sikhs access access to edu&empl preference
    that are available to other religious minorities.

    Fact: Since 1993, Sikhs has same benefit as other religious minorities. Only
    Hindus are denied gigantic faith based govt funding and benefit.

    11) USCIRF wrote: In India, Sikhs are harrassed&pressured to reject
    religious practices…such as dress, unshorn hair.

    Fact: Sikhs face this pressure in almost all countries except India.
    Dress&hair is main reason Sikhs face highest per capita Hate Crime in USA.

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