WASHINGTON — A bipartisan religious freedom commission on Wednesday slammed Russia for ongoing and egregious religious intolerance, adding the country to its list of "countries of particular concern."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2017 annual report highlights acts of violence against people of faith around the world, while also cautioning Americans not to grow numb to the overwhelming amount of suffering believers endure.
"We have to remind people that these (religious freedom) violations are not just statistics. They're not just short news stories. These are human beings and families," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, chairman of the commission, on a morning conference call for the press. "We're looking for ways to make this more visible" to government officials, members of the media and people on the street.
In addition to Russia, the report names 15 other countries this year as countries of particular concern, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The report also explores violence perpetrated by nonstate actors, such as ISIS, and calls out government leaders in Western Europe for allowing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to steadily grow in their region.
"It's because (this behavior) is among our friends, people we expect better of, that we pointed to these situations," Reese said. "We think the government should really work against these things rather than feeding the frenzy with laws about dress and religious symbols in public places."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to provide policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and members of Congress. Its nine commissioners, appointed by the president and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, research the state of religious freedom across the globe and produce an annual report on their findings.
Overall, this year's report investigates the state of religious freedom in 37 countries and regions, noting places where governments stifle personal faith, whether through problematic laws or by turning a blind eye to violence.
"I want to stress that it's not just what a government is actively doing" that harms religious groups, Reese said. "Governments are also responsible for tolerating abusive behavior against religious freedoms."
Countries of concern
The 16 countries listed in the report are singled out for systemic and shocking violations of citizens' right to the freedom of religion or belief. Whether through onerous registration rules or laws meant to protect the status of one religious group, these countries victimize entire communities of believers.
"(Countries of particular concern) represent the worst of the worst when it comes to religious oppression," Reese said.
While Russia had not been listed before, it had been in the commission's spotlight, Reese said, for the country's invasion into the Ukraine and general restrictions on religious practice. The designation came before the nation's supreme court ruled last week to ban the Jehovah's Witnesses from the country. The church's headquarters were shut down and property was seized.
"The Russian Supreme Court ruling just confirmed that ... recommendation was appropriate, justified and timely," he said.
In Russia and elsewhere, so-called blasphemy laws justify government interference in personal religious practice. These statutes prevent people from speaking out against a protected faith group.
"In more than 70 countries worldwide, from Canada to Pakistan, governments employ these laws, which lead to grave human rights violations, embolden extremists and are, in the long run, counterproductive to national security," commissioners write in the annual report.
The other development of note is that Egypt and Iraq have been removed from the countries of particular concern list. Commissioners applauded Egyptian leaders for engaging minority communities, such as Coptic Christians, and highlight the Iraqi government's efforts to decrease sectarian tension.
The State Department will consider the commissions recommended countries of concern when it makes its own designations later this year. As of Oct. 31, the State Department and commission shared 10 countries in common: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In addition to offering an analysis of each country of particular concern, the group's annual report explores other less egregious, but still serious, religious freedom violations around the world.
The 2017 findings include 12 "Tier 2 countries," or places where faith-related violence and limitations on religious practice are widespread. Bahrain made this list for the first time this year, due to growing government interference with the Shiite Muslim community.
"There have been a significant number of arrests and unfounded charges against Shiite clerics," Reese said.
Bahrain's inclusion is a notable development because the U.S. government recently lifted a restriction on the sale of weapons to the country. In this case, foreign policy interests related to security could counteract efforts to protect religious freedom, according to the commission's press release on the report.
The 2017 annual report is the first to include "entities of particular concern," or nonstate actors that engage in violence and exercise significant political power and territorial control. The new designation was created by "amendments to the (International Religious Freedom Act) enacted in December 2016," according to commissioners.
In its first year of the designation, the group named ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Other notable groups, such as Boko Haram, were left out because they do not control a sizable amount of territory, Reese noted.
The report also includes an overview of areas of the world where religious freedom is increasingly under attack, including Western Europe. Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Nepal and Somalia are also being monitored.
While these countries and regions are not yet deemed of particular concern, they will be watched carefully by the commission in coming years.
The commission's 2017 annual report offers a bleak vision of the status of international religious freedom and cautions the U.S. government against being idle in the face of mounting human rights violations.
In addition to urging the State Department, president and members of Congress to pay attention to the countries named in the report, commissioners ask these leaders to commit to a broad, religious freedom-focused policy strategy.
We should "stress consistently the importance of religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, in public statements and public and private meetings," they write.
Commissioners encouraged the Trump administration to quickly appoint a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a special adviser to the president for related issues. Many religion-related posts at the State Department have been vacant since early January.
As Reese noted, work like the Commission on International Religious Freedom's report is easy for outside observers to ignore. The activity it describes is unthinkable and overwhelming.
"The blatant assaults have become so frightening — attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents and wholesale destruction of places of worship — that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," commissioners wrote.
But now is not the time to freeze up and fail to act, and every American has a role to play in ensuring that people of faith who suffer around the world aren't ignored, Reese said.
"This is something that impacts people on a very fundamental level," he said. Numbness "is something we need to struggle against."
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