WASHINGTON — Pakistan is a world leader in oppressing religious minorities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared in a report released Wednesday, with Iran closing in on the top spot and Russia becoming a cause for concern with its recent restrictions against Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The 209-page report is the 15th by the USCIRF, and the commission's chairman said in a teleconference with journalists that the global religious liberty situation is not improving as much as it should, and is in fact getting worse in some nations.
"There's no shortage of places where abuses occur," said Robert P. George, a Princeton University legal scholar. "And the news on (the religious liberty) front is very bad: 76 percent of the world's people live in countries where significant religious freedom violations are tolerated or committed with impunity," George added, citing January 2014 data from the Pew Research Center.
Religious liberty is a global concern for the United States, George said, not only "for humanitarian reasons, but also because nations that trample on religious freedom provide ample ground for war, poverty and violations of human rights. It's a practical necessity in the world today."
He called on the Obama administration to put more teeth into its pronouncements that nations should respect citizens' rights to believe as they wish, to change their faith, and to share their faith publicly, tenets of Article 18 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"We feel Republican and Democratic administrations, burdened as they are we're concerned that with the burden of all those other concerns, the focus on religious freedom has been lost," George said.
Blasphemy death sentences
Draconian blasphemy laws have put 36 people on death row or serving life sentences in Pakistan. George said that dissenting from the majority Sunni Islam faith — as is the case with Shia'a and Ahmadi Muslims — is grounds for blasphemy charges, which have also been leveled at Christians in that country.
The Ahmadi situation, both George and the USCIRF report note, is particularly perilous. "The constitution declares members of the Ahmadi religious community to be 'non-Muslims,' and the penal code makes basic acts of Ahmadi worship and interaction criminal offenses. They also are prevented from voting," the report stated.
The USCIRF report recommends that Secretary of State John F. Kerry continue to list Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern," or CPCs.
The USCIRF commissioners — who operate independently of the State Department — also recommend adding Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the CPC list.
"Syria was added for the abuses against religious freedom being committed not just by the Assad regime but by all sides in the terrible civil war those people are suffering through,” George said. The conflict in Syria is now in its fourth year.
Ten "Tier Two" designations for countries whose actions, though serious, didn't fulfill all the criteria for a higher censure, were also suggested: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.
George asserted that religious liberty in Russia has "suffered a serious setback" with new blasphemy laws and restrictions on the activities of Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses in the country.
"There are hundreds of Muslims jailed (in Russia), reportedly on false charges; many are denied due process and mistreated in detention," the report stated. "Rising xenophobia and intolerance, including anti-Semitism, are linked to violent and lethal hate crimes that occur with impunity. A blasphemy law, which went into effect in July 2013, further curtailed the freedoms of religion, belief, and expression."
George said it was not yet necessary to designate Russia as a CPC, but the situation requires attention.
Religious liberty retrospective
The document also provides a 15-year retrospective on the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the U.S. law that created the commission and required its annual reports. George said the report "identifies some strengths" in the IRFA, but also points out areas where improvements can be made.
"Concerns about religious freedom should be included across U.S. engagements, including in diplomatic exchanges and strategic dialogues with other countries, and during country visits," and, "vacancies in relevant positions, including the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and USCIRF Commissioners, should be quickly filled," the report stated.
The Ambassador-at-Large position has been vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook, a pastor from the Bronx, New York, resigned in October 2013. At the Feb. 6, 2014, National Prayer Breakfast, Obama suggested, a nomination was pending, but three months later he has yet to put forward a name.
"We all loved what President Obama said about international religious freedom in his National Prayer Breakfast speech," George said. However, "presidents need to be making annual (country) designations, and need to be updating the CPC list. I hope this report will prompt a refocusing, a rededication to this human right."
'Some" administration recognition
USCIRF Commissioner Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of the late human rights champion Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., told the Deseret News that she sees "some recognition" by administration officials that expanding religious freedom is important.
"One of my repeated soap box speeches that I give at the National Security Council staff, Congress or State Department, is that getting religious freedom right will have an enormous positive impact on our national security interests," she said.
"I do see the glass as half-full, and I do see the commitment," Swett added, saying she has seen "in off-the-record conversations that I've had with top-level people in the administration, that they get it, they're committed to this."
One outside global religious freedom advocate also lauded the USCIRF report, particularly for the effect such attention gives to the underlying issue.
"The annual report is an important document for all those who are promoting or defending religious freedom, and also for the persecuted, it attracts public and media attention," said John R. Graz, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and secretary-general of the International Religious Liberty Association in Silver Spring, Maryland.