In releasing the 2014 report on religious freedom today, Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that “as much as we oppose the actions of terrorists, we do not agree with governments that use those crimes as a pretext for prohibiting religious activities that are in fact nonviolent and legitimate.”
The report includes crimes of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and others who “seek to justify themselves by pointing a finger at God and claiming somehow that God licensed these acts.”
But, Kerry said, “Those who misuse the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘extremist’ are not fooling anybody, and trying to dictate an artificial conformity of religious expression is not a prescription for harmony.”
“It is a prescription for frustration, anger, and rebellion. And we have learned time and again that if citizens are denied the rights to practice and express their beliefs peacefully, they are far more likely to explore other and more often than not dangerous alternatives,” he said.
The State Department has pointed the finger at, for example, Tajikistan for limiting young people’s participation in public religious activities for fears of stoking violent extremism and China’s banning beards of and headscarves among Uighurs.
Kerry noted that Zhang Kai, a Chinese Christian human rights lawyer, was detained in late August “just prior to a scheduled meeting” with David Saperstein, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. Zhang’s “present whereabouts are unknown.”
“Religious bigotry is present to a degree in every continent and every country, and sadly, even including our own. It may be expressed through anti-Semitism or prejudice against Muslims; through the persecution of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others; or it may come in the guise of attacks against religion itself, as we saw so tragically in Oregon at the beginning of this month,” he said.
The purpose of the annual report, Kerry said, “is to highlight the importance of religious freedom not by lecturing but through advocacy and through persuasion.”
“Our primary goal is to help governments everywhere recognize that their societies will do better with religious liberty than without it. The world has learned through very hard experience that religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all; while religious discrimination is often the source of conflicts that endanger all.”
The report is divided by country. Iran is a “Country of Particular Concern” as the government “executed and jailed members of religious minority groups on charges of moharebeh (enmity against God) and anti-Islamic propaganda. The government discriminated against all religious minority groups in employment, education, and housing.”
It mentions Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, “in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs.”
“The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and therefore has limited opportunity to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions,” the report adds. “The U.S. government used various avenues to call on Iran to respect religious freedom and condemn abuses. These include public statements and reports, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions.”
In a briefing today, Saperstein said “the single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge, and that is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”
He also decried the number of countries with blasphemy laws on the books and “repressive governments [that] routinely subject their citizens to violence, detention, discrimination, undue surveillance, for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community.”
Saperstein called pushback from governments who see religious freedom as an unpalatable Western concept “somewhat of a growing phenomenon.”
“We respect the varied traditions of people up to the point it violates those international norms,” he said. “We try to engage with them on their terms to find ways to address what concerns they might have about defamation of religion, about attacks on religion, about the questions of what religiously would be — would constitute blasphemy by finding non-legal ways to deal with that.”
The report doesn’t include the Palestinian Authority but “Israel and The Occupied Territories.” It notes in this section that statements from terrorists including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad “often contained anti-Semitic rhetoric and appeals to Islamic religious beliefs in conjunction with the attacks.”
“During Israeli military operations in the Occupied Territories from July to August, there was an increase in tension, intolerant statements in the media, and violent attacks between segments of the Jewish population and segments of the non-Jewish Arab population, many of whom identified themselves as Palestinian, including an increase in attacks on Muslim and Christian religious sites and Arab-affiliated property. An unidentified cartoonist created an image of Gaza as a veiled Muslim woman in a lascivious pose asking for sexual favors. In November a Palestinian artist depicted al-Aqsa mosque as a jailed woman about to be raped by Israeli soldiers,” the report states. “Because religion, ethnicity, and nationality are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize such societal actions against specific groups as being solely based on religious identity.”
Responding to the report, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called attacks on religious freedom, including stabbings of Jews in Jerusalem in recent weeks, “both a moral and strategic national security concern for the United States.”
“Sadly this issue has been met with little urgency or vision on the part of the Obama administration – at precisely the time it’s most needed,” Rubio said. “Long vacancies in key positions, lack of resources and prioritization, and diminished standing within the State Department bureaucracy have hampered our ability to champion this fundamental freedom abroad.”
“Additionally, the State Department does not utilize the tools it has to name and shame violators of religious freedom such as the designation of Country of Particular Concern (CPC). The administration should re-designate countries every year for their religious freedom violations. In particular, countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam should be considered for a CPC designation, as has been repeatedly recommended by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”