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Manish Swarup, Associated Press
Relatives of Easter bomb blasts pray at a mass burial site after a televised Sunday mass by Sri Lankan Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 28, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Religious freedom is deteriorating around the world and efforts to protect it haven't kept pace with persecution, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's latest report, released Monday.

World leaders, including presidents and prime ministers, may speak often about the value of religious freedom, but these statements do little to deter the surveillance, imprisonment or murder of vulnerable people of faith. It will take additional action, such as targeted sanctions and increased funding, to make a difference for marginalized communities, members of the commission said.

"The international community is increasingly responsible for allowing … governments to get away with systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom without consequence or accountability," the report explains.

The report, which explores religious freedom developments in 2018, addresses a broad range of violence, from explosions at houses of worship to forced conversions. Across the globe, people suffer because of what they believe, whether they're directly targeted by their own governments or ignored when they cry out for help.

The commission does highlight some positive events and trends, such as last summer's high-profile gathering of diplomats, people of faith and human rights activists from more than 80 countries on religious persecution in Washington, D.C., which resulted in new partnerships and action plans. However, these bright spots do little to quiet the fear, sadness and frustration stirred up elsewhere in the document.

"Although some foreign governments have joined the fight to promote freedom of religion or belief, others brazenly suppress it," the commission notes.

The report is a wake-up call for American officials and citizens, who often don't understand the full scope of religious persecution in other countries, according to speakers at the Monday launch event for the report. We need to do more than just express sympathy when worshippers are killed or faith leaders are arrested, they said.

Religious freedom "is a universal human right that we take for granted," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, a frequent advocate of religious freedom whose wife, Gayle Conelly Manchin, serves on the commission.

New report, familiar findings

The report's findings will not come as a surprise to people who have followed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's work tracking religious persecution over the last two decades.

The organization, which is part of the federal government but operates independently of the White House and State Department, has repeatedly called out government inaction since its first report in 2000. Additionally, countries rarely drop from its annual list of "countries of particular concern."

In 2000, the commission's report focused on three countries: Russia, Sudan and China. In its 20th report, those countries are joined by 13 others on the list of Tier 1 "countries of particular concern," which are distinctive for allowing "systematic, ongoing and egregious" religious freedom violations.

"Despite two decades of tireless work to bring an end to religious-based discrimination, violence and persecution, innumerable believers and nonbelievers across the globe continued in 2018 to experience manifold suffering due to their beliefs," wrote members of the bipartisan commission, who are appointed by the president and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

Lefteris Pitarakis, Associated Press
People from the Uighur community living in Turkey carry flags of what ethnic Uighurs call "East Turkestan," during a protest in Istanbul, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, against what they allege is oppression by the Chinese government to Muslim Uighur people in the far-western Xinjiang province.

This year's report also lists 12 Tier 2 countries, where persecution isn't as severe or routine as in Tier 1 countries but is still deeply problematic, and five "entities of particular concern," which are non-state actors like the Islamic State.

The bulk of the report is dedicated to in-depth analysis of the countries and entities of particular concern. Commissioners explain what led to each designation and offer suggestions on how the U.S. government should respond.

Among the many horrifying stories recounted, developments in China stand out, said Gary Bauer, who serves on the commission, at the launch event.

"If I were to rate the Tier 1 countries, China would be in a category all by itself," he said.

Tibetan Buddhists are detained if they're caught with a photo of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader. Christian churches are shut down and the Bible is censored. Muslims are sent to concentration camps and told to renounce their faith.

Chinese officials "are an equal opportunity persecutor," Bauer said.

Achmad Ibrahim, Associated Press
Muslim protesters rally outside China's embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. Several hundred protesters chanted "God is Great" and "Get out, communist!" outside China's embassy in the Indonesian capital, demanding an end to mass detentions of Uighur Muslims.

And yet the U.S. government and other champions of religious freedom have pulled their punches, the report explains. As religious violence in China has escalated over the last two decades, world leaders have done little to interfere, likely because they've come to depend on trade with the country.

"Although a handful of foreign governments — including the United States, Britain and Turkey — have harshly condemned the Chinese government for these egregious abuses, China has faced few, if any, consequences," the report says.

Power and money aren't the only tools religious persecutors use to avoid sanctions, according to the commission. Many countries of particular concern say their actions are aimed at improving national security and reject attempts to push them to change their ways.

"Governments perpetrating or tolerating (faith-related) abuses often decry 'interference in internal affairs' when they are rightfully admonished," the report says.

Moving forward

Although the report features familiar themes, it also notes how religious persecution has changed in recent years, said Kristina Arriaga, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, during Monday's launch event. For example, non-state actors are playing a growing role in faith-related violence.

To groups like the Islamic State or the Taliban, the world is borderless, she added. They can't be addressed in traditional ways, such as dialogue between diplomats or financial sanctions.

"The world is changing," Arriaga said.

So the U.S. approach to international religious freedom needs to change, as well, according to the report.

" Increasingly, houses of worship have been … targeted by terrorists and others. People of all faiths should be able to go to their own houses of worship in safety. "
Tony Perkins

Commissioners suggest appointing a special adviser on religious freedom to the president's National Security Council, increasing the use of targeted sanctions and promoting tolerance through various state-sponsored funding programs. The report also noted that defense funding could be used to train other countries' police officers or military members who are assigned to guard houses or worship or sacred sites.

"Increasingly, houses of worship have been … targeted by terrorists and others," said Tony Perkins, who also serves on the commission. "People of all faiths should be able to go to their own houses of worship in safety."

The U.S. government already took several steps in the right direction in 2018, the commission said. Officials built stronger relationships with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan; President Donald Trump's pick for ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, was sworn in; and the State Department hosted a high-level meeting on religious freedom in Washington, D.C., in July.

"It was the first time since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that a group of countries got together to discuss, at a ministerial level, one issue and one issue only," Arriaga said.

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This gathering, called the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, brought together diplomats from more than 80 countries and led to a new declaration on this human right and a variety of new programs aimed at promoting it around the world. The State Department will host a second such meeting this July.

Moving forward, Americans, both inside and outside the government, must commit to protecting religious freedom however they can and not let partisanship stand in the way, Manchin said.

"I get frustrated with this place sometimes," he said. "Tribalism makes it impossible to do the things that we want to do."