WASHINGTON — The State Department’s annual report on religious freedom worldwide found that in 2013 “the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory” as extremists forced communities out of their traditional homes and “governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws.”
“In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self,” the report said. “Anti-Muslim violence in Meikhtila, Burma, led to up to 100 deaths and an estimated 12,000 displaced residents from the area in early 2013… All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all.”
The report notes that in Tajikistan Muslim women can’t attend mosques and in Eritrea members of non-sanctioned religious groups are being held behind bars and are unable to claim conscientious objector status against compulsory military service.
“Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict. The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism among Jews in eight member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom), released in November, found that in some countries as many as 48 percent of the local Jewish population had considered emigrating because of anti-Semitism,” continued the report.
“Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.”
At a press conference to release the report, Secretary of State John Kerry called the annual publication “a demonstration of the abiding commitment of the American people and the entire U.S. government to the advancement of freedom of religion worldwide.”
“It’s been at the center of our very identity since the Pilgrims fled religious persecution and landed in my home state of Massachusetts,” he added, proceeding to go into detail about accused witches being burned at the Salem trials.
“I am making certain and I will continue to that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement. The release of this report is an important part of those efforts,” Kerry said, adding that “when necessary, yes, it does directly shine a light in a way that makes some countries, even some of our friends, uncomfortable. But it does so in order to try to make progress.”
Turkmenistan was newly added to the State Department’s list of countries of particular concern, due to “reports that people in Turkmenistan are detained, beaten, and tortured because of their religious beliefs.”
“The government of Turkmenistan has passed religious laws that prohibit people from wearing religious attire in public places. Or they’d impose fines for distributing religious literature. And the authorities continue to arrest and imprison Jehovah’s witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service,” Kerry said.
“I want to emphasize this effort isn’t about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth… That’s why we’re committed to working with governments as partners to help them ensure full respect for the human rights of all of their citizens. And 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.”
Kerry singled out North Korea for “its absolute and brutal repression of religious activity,” but didn’t mention Christian missionary and American prisoner Kenneth Bae.
He did mention “U.S.-Iranian citizen pastor Saeed Abedini,” held “simply because of his religious beliefs.”
“We will continue to call for his release, and we will continue to work for it,” Kerry said of the Idaho Christian who’s been held by Tehran since 2012.
The secretary called out Russia for “a succession of evermore punitive laws against what they call extremism to justify crude measures against people of faith,” persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims by China, and displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Burma.
“Around the world, repressive governments and extremist groups have been crystal clear about what they stand against. So we have to be equally clear about what we must stand for. We stand for greater freedom, greater tolerance, greater respect for rights of freedom of expression and freedom of conscience,” Kerry said.
“With this report, I emphasize, we are not arrogantly telling people what to believe. We’re not telling people how they have to live every day. We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance of the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices,” he continued. “We are asserting a universal principle for tolerance. The Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have to find new meaning in the old notion of our shared descent. What really is our common inheritance? What does it mean to be brothers and sisters and to express our beliefs in mutual tolerance and understanding? Answering those questions is our mission today.”
The release of the report coincided with President Obama filling a nine-month vacancy at the State Department for the ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom. Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein has been director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism since 1974.
“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” Obama said in a brief statement released by the White House. “I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.”
Lawmakers noted, though, that the administration was overdue on adding countries of particular concern to the current list, which included Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan before the Turkmenistan addition today.
“While I recognize that the administration is finally acting today to fulfill its statutory obligation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, I do not understand why it has failed to do so for the past three years,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “The president had not designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) since August 2011, an annual requirement under the law. And even today’s designations do not capture all of those countries whose repression justifies CPC designation.”
“One glaring omission from the State Department’s list is Vietnam, where those who practice religious freedom are severely persecuted,” Royce added. “Having traveled to Vietnam to meet with the venerable Thich Quang Do, I have seen the extent to which the Communist Government of Vietnam will go to punish peaceful religious dissidents.” The Buddhist monk leads the banned sect in the country.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill today to urge concrete action against the worst violators of religious freedom and require reports from the president to Congress on these steps, which can include sanctions.
“In light of today’s report, we are reminded of the religious intolerance, persecution and discrimination that continues to plague people of various faiths around the world. But more importantly, we are reminded of our responsibility to respond to such violations with meaningful measures that combat religious intolerance and display our dedication to religious freedom for all,” Rubio said.
“While I welcome today’s announcement updating CPC designations, this administration has failed to do so since 2011,” added the senator. “By amending the International Religious Freedom Act, this legislation encourages the administration to take a firmer stance on religious freedom violators and codifies America’s commitment to advancing religious freedom as a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
Royce said the report is yet another reminder that “religious liberty remains under siege around the world.”
“Millions of believers face extremists who terrorize those with differing beliefs, or authoritarian governments who deny the freedom to worship outside of pre-approved regime-controlled means,” the chairman said. “We need look no further than the ongoing terror campaign of ISIS against the ancient Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, whose doors have been painted red, and who have been threatened with death unless they abandon their Christian faith.”