A new report from the U.S. State Department details the status of religious freedom around the world, painting a grim picture of what it calls "the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory."
The 2013 International Religious Freedom Report cites violent conflicts in countries like Syria, as well as ongoing discrimination against religious minorities and government-sanctioned attacks on members of unpopular sects in countries around the world, in its description of an international environment in which the ability to practice faith freely is in scarcer supply than previous years.
All religions are impacted by the violence, according to the annual update on the State Department's work to address religious freedom issues, with minority communities particularly at risk. In Pakistan, for example, militants killed more than 400 Shia Muslims in attacks throughout the year, while the Chinese government persecuted leaders of Catholic communities. The report also calls attention to anti-Semitism spreading throughout Europe, breeding in online discussion groups and chants at sporting events.
"When 75 percent of the world's population still lives in countries that don't respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us. We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain or torture people based on a religious belief," Secretary of State John Kerry said in his remarks about the report.
The State Department is mandated by Congress to produce an annual assessment of the state of religious freedom in every country. The 2013 report is designed to inform foreign policy decisions throughout the next year.
'Countries of Particular Concern'
The report includes an update to the State Department's list of "Countries of Particular Concern," defined by the International Religious Freedom Act as a list of countries where there are "particularly severe violations of religious freedom."
The updated list includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkmenistan is a new addition, as developments within the country's borders during 2013 escalated concerns at the U.S. State Department. Kerry named several examples of growing violence in Turkmenistan, including laws passed to prohibit religious expression in public places and imprisonment of Jehovah's Witnesses who ask to be excused from military service due to their beliefs.
The other eight countries have been cited for extensive religious freedom violations in the past. Kerry's comments emphasized the spirit of persecution these countries' governments have nurtured or, at the very least, allowed to persist.
"North Korea stands out again in this year's report for its absolute and brutal repression of religious activity. Members of religious minorities are ripped from their families and isolated in political prison camps," Kerry said.
Religious minorities are constantly at risk in countries that closely regulate the practice of religion — countries that can include U.S. allies and foes alike. "Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan put severe restrictions on members of religious groups that did not conform to the state-approved religion(s), while in China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, religious activity was only lawful if explicitly authorized by the state," the report noted.
Updating the list of countries of particular concern is an important aspect of the annual religious freedom report, but naming problematic countries isn't the same thing as taking steps to end the violence, Kerry said.
"This effort isn't about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we've spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people," said Kerry.
But some religious freedom advocates question why those nine countries are singled out at the exclusion of others, especially countries that receive harsh condemnation elsewhere in the report and in the news, such as Syria and Iraq.
Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission explained that the International Religious Freedom Act allows government leaders to consider political concerns when they compile the CPC — meaning that they can leave a country off the list if there are diplomatic sensitivities.
"When we passed that law, we understood that it was necessary to give the President some leeway in negotiating freedoms for people in (some) countries," said Duke, who serves as the ERLC's vice president for Public Policy and Research. "There's some opportunity to use the carrot instead of the stick."
However, Duke worries that the current administration is being too timid when it comes to addressing religious freedom violations. "I'm afraid that the government is not using carrots; it's using sugar sticks at times when it does need to be using a large stick of American influence and power," he said.
Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, was also critical of the government's performance record, highlighting the need for positive action to follow the release of the report.
"The hope for U.S. policy effectiveness in places like Syria and elsewhere depends on leadership, strategy and action," wrote Farr in an email.
"The question is not what the report says but what the State Department does. In particular, whether the department will provide its new (ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom) with the resources and authority to succeed," he wrote.
President Obama announced Monday that he would appoint Rabbi David Saperstein, a long-time advocate of religious freedom and director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as the new ambassador. Saperstein will have to be approved by the Senate before he takes on the role, filling a position that has been vacant since last October.
Many of the countries named in the report are experiencing religious violence as part of a larger political conflict.
In Syria, for example, "the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self. After three years of civil war, hundreds of thousands fled the country desperate to escape the ongoing violence perpetrated by the government and extremist groups alike," the report explained.
Iraq and the Central African Republic were also named as countries whose citizens suffer from ongoing sectarian violence. Violence between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic led to 700 deaths in December alone.
Daniel Mark, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, explained that protecting religious communities in war-torn countries is a difficult undertaking, especially when immediate humanitarian concerns like providing food and medicine take precedence.
But Mark believes that religious freedom advocates still have a job to do, even when violence goes beyond religious conflicts to include ethnic or political tensions.
"We can call attention to religious freedom problems as best we can in the hopes that we will influence internal and external actors to defend religious freedom or to at least respect it," Mark said. He noted the importance of including protections for faith groups in treaties or ceasefire agreements.
Throughout Kerry's remarks, he emphasized the commitment of American officials to support religious freedom abroad. "Freedom of religion is at the core of who we are as Americans," he said. "And though we are obviously far from perfect, and we know that, no place has ever welcomed so many different faiths to worship as freely as here in the United States of America."
Although the 2013 report contained plenty of bad news, religious freedom supporters say Americans shouldn't feel powerless in the face of ongoing violence.
Mark said people who don't have the ear of diplomats or politicians can volunteer, donate to charities or join grassroots campaigns. Additionally, Mark said, young people who are still in the "student phase of their lives" should know that there is value in educating oneself about religious freedom issues.
"Young people can take (the report) as a lesson and a reminder and an impetus to educate themselves and to be as informed as they can be" about practical realities and the theory behind religious freedom efforts, he said.
Kerry also struck an optimistic tone about the capabilities of everyday Americans, young and old.
"While serious challenges to religious freedom remain, I know that the power of the human spirit can and will triumph over them. It is not just up to the rabbis, the bishops and the imams. It's up to all of us to find the common ground and draw on what must be our common resolve to put our universal commitments into actions," Kerry said.
Duke echoed the notion that all Americans have a role to play in improving the state of religious freedom around the world. Noting his organization's work to inform and empower members of the Southern Baptist Convention, he said religious communities should keep the power of prayer in mind.
"I think a lot of folks probably feel that this is beyond their ability (to offer help)," Duke said. "It just isn't the case. I would encourage everyone to be praying. We know that God is aware of what's going on."
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