In addition, “the Vietnamese government continued to arrest and imprison peaceful religious leaders and religious freedom advocates.” It is not just the national capital which threatens religious liberty, however. “Local authorities continued to expropriate or destroy property belonging to religious communities. For example, in January, authorities in Kontum Province demolished Son Linh Tu Pagoda, which had been affiliated with the independent Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.”
These 14 states are merely the worst of the worst. Unfortunately, they have a lot of competition. And assessments aren’t always easy to make. Violations of religious liberty occur on a spectrum. Not all countries unfriendly to religious liberty employ violent persecution. Some do little to prevent acts of private violence. Others institute pervasive discrimination and pressure. Sometimes social and political pressure merge.
The Commission placed 15 states on its Special Watch List: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Turkey, Uzbekistan. Here as well, one commissioner, Johnnie Moore, curiously dissented from several designations largely on political grounds, undermining the body’s supposedly objective role.
Twelve of the nations are Muslim, which reflects the fact that every majority‐Muslim nation mistreats religious minorities. They often differ in degree and sometimes in kind. Nevertheless, that is the single most common characteristic of governments which persecute.
Second is authoritarianism, especially being a current or former communist state. Cuba and the three Central Asian Muslim states fall into this category. Nicaragua is a fellow traveler, at least. Which leaves the Central African Republic, a majority‐Christian country in which blame for sectarian violence is shared but the violence was first triggered by the depredations of Muslim militias.
Finally, the Commission pointed to negative trends last year which threatened religious liberty. For instance, Beijing asserted its malign influence beyond its own borders. Anti‐Semitism was on the rise in some countries. Despite widespread criticism of much‐abused blasphemy laws, some governments increased penalties for violations. Religious freedom suffered due to government suppression of people of faith for social or political reasons. Houses of worship came under attack. Governments, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, exported their repressive religious systems.
The problems are great while the solutions are few. Washington has little ability to reach into other societies and end their grievous violations of religious liberty. Most administrations prioritize geopolitics, hence the president’s shameful extended genuflection to the Saudi monarchy. The Trump administration also lets Bahrain, Egypt, and Turkey off easy for political reasons.
Even for a president who cared about international religious persecution, sanctions would be no answer, since governments rarely abandon fundamental political objectives because their people are suffering. Indeed, every Trump administration campaign highlighted by increased economic penalties has failed: Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. In several cases there is little more that the U.S. could do, having ramped up sanctions for other issues, such as nuclear nonproliferation. The final remedy, war, is no humanitarian instrument and there is no political support for wandering the globe in what would be perceived as a modern crusade against other faiths.
What Washington could do better, however, is not embracing, subsidizing, and defending repressive regimes except in exceptional circumstances. Such necessity is rarely present today. Moreover, the U.S. should stop promiscuously and carelessly intervening to create chaos in which religious extremism and tyranny flourish. The invasion of Iraq ousted a secular regime, triggered a sectarian conflict which largely destroyed the indigenous Christian community, and spawned an insurgent/terrorist group which targeted religious minorities and Shia in both Iraq and Syria. Washington’s support for insurgents in Syria, including more than a few radicals, threatened with destruction the Christian and Alawite communities there.
The government’s failure should not stop Americans, in and out of churches, synagogues, and temples, from joining together to support the oppressed around the world. There is value in exposing and shaming persecutors. And embarrassing government officials whose policies undermine the right and opportunity of people of faith to live their beliefs.
We should stand by our brothers and sisters around the globe as they seek to understand the transcendent and respond accordingly. By protecting them, we defend human community that is both free and virtuous.