Dictators have been falling in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean freedom is inevitably expanding. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring has turned into something far different than hoped. Especially for religious minorities.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest report with grim news. According to USCIRF: “Across the global landscape, the pivotal human right of religious freedom was under escalating attack. To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities.”
Religious liberty matters even to people who are not religious. Everyone has a transcendent worldview. Protecting the right to believe also means protecting the right not to believe.
Moreover, religious liberty is an important indicator of political freedom and other human rights. A society and state which refuse to respect the most fundamental right of conscience in religion are unlikely to respect it elsewhere. Religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the mine. If people are oppressed because of their religious faith, they are likely to be victimized for holding other unpopular beliefs.
The problem is not just direct state oppression. Some governments aid and abet persecution by not protecting religious minorities. Noted the Commission: “The failure to prevent or punish violence against vulnerable religious minorities provided a grim portrait of how states can create or fuel a culture of impunity, encouraging private citizens or groups to threaten, intimidate, and even murder others.”
Religious persecution is widespread, but it is not in America, where the First Amendment guarantees Americans a degree of religious liberty that is almost unique in the world. Cultural hostility to religion exists, but is not the same as religious persecution.
The Commission focused on 25 particularly egregious countries. It advocated that the State Department rate 16 of them as “Countries of Particular Concern” because they are responsible for “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty. USCIRF put another nine nations on its “Watch List” because of “negative trends that could develop into severe violations.”
Alas, the CPCs included many supposed American allies and friends.
Burma. The military junta relinquished power to a nominally civilian government, which is liberalizing the political process. Nevertheless, the legacy of past abuses lives on. Reported the Commission: “Religious groups, particularly ethnic minority Christians and Muslims and Buddhist monks suspected of engaging in anti‐government activity, faced intrusive monitoring, arrest, mistreatment, destruction or desecration of property, severe restrictions on worship, education, and religious activities, and targeted violence.”
However, if present trends continue, Burma may fall off of the list of its own accord. For instance, the government has reached a ceasefire with the rebellious Karen National Union, which represents the predominantly Christian Karen. Moreover, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from house arrest to parliament. Much more remains to be done, but for the first time in decades the prognosis appears positive.
China. The People’s Republic of China is far freer than it was during the maniacal and murderous reign of Mao Zedong. However, noted USCIRF: “The Chinese government continues to violate severely its international obligations to protect the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Religious groups and individuals considered to threaten national security or social harmony, or whose practices are deemed superstitious, cult‐like, or beyond the vague legal definition of ‘normal religious activities’ face severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses.”
Proselytizing Christians and the orthodox, non-“Patriotic” Catholic Church, face significant repression. However, added the Commission, “religious freedom conditions for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims remain particularly acute.” It isn’t just religious believers who face persecution. Said USCIRF: “The Chinese government also continues to harass, detain, intimidate, disbar, and forcibly disappear attorneys who defend vulnerable religious groups.”
Egypt. The problems with the so‐called Arab Spring are on dramatic display. The overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak has made a bad situation worse.
Noted the Commission: “Over the past year, the Egyptian transitional government continued to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt.”
Unfortunately, Islamists are likely to dominate Egypt’s future. And no one scrambling for power seems very interested in protecting unpopular minorities. Concluded USCIRF: “In 2011, violent sectarian attacks, targeting primarily Coptic Orthodox Christians, have resulted in nearly 100 deaths, surpassing the death toll of the previous 10 years combined. During the transitional period, the lack of adequate security in the streets has contributed to lawlessness in parts of the country, particularly in Upper Egypt.”
Eritrea. This relatively young country emerged from years of conflict with Ethiopia with independence, not liberty. The Commission wrote: “Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations continue in Eritrea. These violations include: torture or other ill‐treatment of thousands of religious prisoners; arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges of members of unregistered religious groups; a prolonged ban on public religious activities; revocation of citizenship rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses; interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups; and inordinate delays in responding to registration applications from religious groups.”
No one is safe from the brutal attentions of the authoritarian government, but minority sects are particularly vulnerable. Noted USCIRF: “The situation is particularly dire for Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other small and non‐traditional religious groups, such as Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians.”
Iran. It should surprise no one that Iran is inhospitable to religious liberty. Said the Commission: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”
All religious minorities are at risk, “most notably Baha’is, as well as Christians and Sufi Muslims,” upon whom “physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment intensified. Even the recognized non‐Muslim religious minorities protected under Iran’s constitution—Jews, Armenian and Assyrian Christians, and Zoroastrians—faced increasing discrimination, arrests, and imprisonment.” So, too, dissenting Muslims “were intimidated, harassed, and detained.”
With the regime under increasing domestic pressure after the disputed 2009 election, “religious freedom conditions in Iran have regressed to a point not seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution.” Unfortunately, the situation is likely to worsen as foreign pressure directed at Tehran’s alleged nuclear program increases.
Iraq. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was supposed to “drain the swamp” of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. However, the situation has deteriorated dramatically for religious minorities. Reported the Commission: “The Iraqi government continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. In the past year, religious sites and worshippers were targeted in violent attacks, often with impunity, and businesses viewed as ‘un‐Islamic’ were vandalized.”
The worst recent attacks were against Shi’as. However, religious minorities have suffered the most since the U.S. invasion. According to USCIRF: “Large percentages of the country’s smallest religious minorities—which include Chaldo‐Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis—have fled the country in recent years, threatening these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”
Nigeria. Violations of religious liberty are on the increase in this religiously‐divided country. Noted the USCIRF: “The past year saw a dramatic rise in sectarian or religiously‐related violence.”
Although these attacks, largely directed by radical Muslims against Christians, are not new—some 14,000 have died since 1999—they have escalated, explained the Commission, with the rise of “Boko Haram, a militant group that espouses an extreme and violence interpretation of Islam, [which] has been emboldened by the climate of impunity. Boko Haram has shifted its tactics and emphasis by targeting, killing, and bombing Christians and Christian clergy and threatening to kill all remaining Christians in the north.”
North Korea. There may be no more oppressive state than the so‐called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Getting reliable information about the DPRK is difficult, but, reported USCIRF: “There continues to be reports of severe religious abuses occurring during the past year, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity; and the mistreatment and imprisonment of asylum‐seekers repatriated from China, particularly those suspected of engaging in religious activities.” There is no sign of liberalization after the death of long‐time “Dear Leader” Kim Jong‐il in December.
Pakistan. Although nominally democratic, Pakistan is not liberal in any sense, especially when it comes to religion. Reported the Commission: “The government of Pakistan continues to both engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief. Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation, such as the anti‐Ahmadi laws, have created an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism. Sectarian and religiously‐motivated violence is chronic, and the government has failed to protect members of the majority faith and religious minorities.”
In Pakistan the lack of religious liberty signals significant threats to other freedoms. For instance, liberal Muslims are threatened by the same extremist forces. Noted USCIRF: “Growing religious extremism threatens the freedoms of religion and expression, as well as other human rights, for everyone in Pakistan.” Unfortunately, the country is growing less rather than more stable and dangerous.
Saudi Arabia. Another thuggish U.S. “friend” is Riyadh, which uses its abundant oil revenues to promote Islamic radicalism around the world. Reported the Commission: “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom continued in Saudi Arabia despite improvements.” A decade after 9/11 “the Saudi government has failed to implement a number of promised reforms related to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.”
Moreover, Riyadh bans any non‐Muslim worship. Even private religious activities are suppressed if they are discovered. Religion combined with politics is especially toxic for the Saudi royals. Explained USCIRF: “There have been numerous arrests and detentions of Shi’a Muslim dissidents, partly as a result of increasing protests and demonstrations related to 2011 uprisings in the region.”
Sudan. Millions of people have died in recent decades in Sudan. Between 1983 and 2005, the Commission “identified Sudan as the world’s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion or belief.” The brutal civil war, thankfully, has ended. However, conflict between Muslim‐majority Sudan and the newly created nation of South Sudan, dominated by Christians and animists, looks increasingly possible.
Beyond war, reported USCIRF: “Systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief continue in Sudan. Violations include: the criminalization, subject to the death penalty, of apostasy; the efforts by the government in Khartoum to impose its restrictive interpretation of Shari’ah (Islamic law) on Muslims and non‐Muslims; attacks and threats against the Christian community,” as well as “the denial of public religious expression and persuasion of Muslims by non‐Muslims, while allowing proselytizing of non‐Muslims by Muslims; and the difficulty in obtaining permission to build churches.”
Tajikistan. The former Soviet republics in Central Asia have turned into human rights black holes. Observed the Commission: “The religious freedom situation in Tajikistan further deteriorated during the reporting period as it has over the past several years, leading to systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief. The state suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control, and imprisons individuals on unproven criminal allegations linked to religious activity or affiliation.”
Government policies “target minority communities viewed as foreign‐influenced, particularly Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses.” However, the country is an equal opportunity oppressor. Even majority Muslims are victimized by the government.
Turkey. USCIRF’s most surprising (and divided) designation went to NATO ally Turkey. Explained the Commission: “The Turkish government, in the name of secularism, has long imposed burdensome regulations and denied full legal status to religious groups, violating the religious freedom rights of all religious communities. These restrictions, including policies that deny non‐Muslim communities the rights to train clergy, offer religious education, and own and maintain places of worship, have lead to their decline, and in some cases, their virtual disappearance.”
Even Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Turkey’s population, have suffered for years under heavy‐handed secularist policies. As for other faiths, USCIRF pointed to “the Turkish government’s intervention into minority religious communities’ religious affairs; societal discrimination and occasional violence against religious minorities; limitations on religious dress; and anti‐Semitism in Turkish society and media.”
Turkmenistan. This Central Asian state long was a North Korean wannabe—a repressive, isolated totalitarian system with suffocating personality cult. The death of one dictator only led to the elevation of another one. Reported the Commission: “Severe religious freedom violations and official harassment of religious adherents persist in Turkmenistan.” Despite some minor political reforms in recent years, “the country’s laws, policies, and practices continue to violate international human rights norms, including those on freedom of religion or belief. Police raids and other harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continue.”
Uzbekistan. No better is neighboring Uzbekistan. The government, observed USCIRF: “has systematically and egregiously violated freedom of religion or belief. The Uzbek government violates the full range of human rights and harshly penalizes individuals for independent religious activity regardless of their religious affiliation.” The objective is to maintain political control, resulting in restrictions on Muslims, who make up a majority of the population. Explained the Commission, “The government continues to arrest Muslims and repress individuals, groups, and mosques that do not conform to officially‐prescribed practices or that it claims are associated with extremist political programs.”
Vietnam. This nominally communist country remains hostile to religious liberty. Concluded USCIRF: “The government of Vietnam continues to control all religious communities, restrict and penalize independent religious practice severely, and repress individuals and groups viewed as challenging its authority.” Despite some improvements in recent years, “individuals continue to be imprisoned or detained for reasons related to their religious activity or religious freedom activity.”
In fact, Vietnam appears to be regressing. The Commission warned that “in the past reporting period, there were marked increases in arrests, detentions, and harassment of groups and individuals viewed as hostile to the Communist Party, including violence aimed at peaceful ethnic minority gatherings and Catholics protesting land confiscations and harassment.” Hanoi may be friendlier toward Washington, but it remains ruthlessly hostile to religious belief.
Religious persecution is serious but less pervasive in another nine countries, which made USCIRF’s Watch List.
Afghanistan. Liberated from the extremist Taliban by allied forces, Afghanistan nevertheless remains inhospitable to religious liberty. Reported the Commission: “Conditions for religious freedom are exceedingly poor for dissenting members of the majority faith and for minority religious communities.” The constitution “contains a repugnancy clause stating that no law can be contrary to the tenets of Islam, which the government has interpreted to limit fundamental freedoms. Individuals who dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy regarding Islamic beliefs and practices are subject to legal action.” Like Saudi Arabia, there is not even one Christian church operating openly.
Belarus. This former Soviet republic still operates much like the old Soviet Union. Explained USCIRF: “The government of Belarus, through intrusive laws and policies, continues to violate the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief throughout the country. Religious communities and individuals found to have violated these restrictive laws have been harassed, raided, fined, and detained. Vandalism of religious properties has occurred with impunity.”
Cuba. This poor island nation has not abandoned the formal pretense of communism, but appears to be informally giving up the practice. Unfortunately, though, the Commission found that “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba despite some improvements. Violations by the Cuban government include: detention, sporadic arrests, and harassment of clergy and religious leaders, as well as interference in church affairs. The Cuban government also controls and monitors religious belief and practices through surveillance and legal restrictions.”
India. The world’s largest democracy does not itself persecute, but has proved unable or unwilling to stop religious repression at the provincial level as well as communal violence. Noted USCIRF: “intimidation, harassment, and occasional small‐scale violence against members of religious minority groups continued, particularly against Christians in states with anti‐conversion laws. While there has been no large‐scale communal violence against religious minorities since 2008… the deleterious pace of the judicial responses and the adopted anti‐conversion laws enable impunity.”
Indonesia. The most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia has moved steadily along the democratic path. However, reported the Commission, “the country’s tradition of religious tolerance and pluralism has been strained. While the government has addressed past sectarian violence and curtailed terrorist networks, religious minorities continue to experience intimidation, discrimination, and societal violence… and national laws and provincial decrees have restricted religious freedom.”
Laos. Another communist relic, noted USCIRF, “the Lao government restricts religious practice through its legal code and has not curtailed religious freedom abuses in some rural areas. Provincial officials continue to violate the freedom of religion or belief of ethnic minority Protestants through detentions, surveillance, harassment, property confiscations, forced relocations, and forced renunciations of faith.” Thankfully, the status of religious liberty has improved in urban areas.
Russia. The former communist motherland tragically is regressing. The Commission explained: “The government increasingly used its anti‐extremism law against peaceful religious groups and individuals, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslim readers of the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi. National and local officials also apply other laws to harass Muslims and groups they view as non‐traditional or alien. These actions, along with rising xenophobia and intolerance, including anti‐Semitism, are linked to violent or lethal hate crimes.”
Somalia. This failed state lacks any effective government. USCIRF wrote that “Egregious religious freedom violations by the U.S.-designated terrorist group al‐Shabaab continue in Somalia, including: the violent implementation of its extremist interpretation of Islamic law and use of hudood punishments; execution of those it deems ‘enemies of Islam;’ and killing of Christian converts.”
Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez may be dying, but his system of repression remains brutally healthy. Reported the Commission, violations of religious liberty include: “the government’s failure to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of attacks on religious leaders and houses of worship, and virulent rhetoric from president Hugo Chavez, government officials, state media, and pro‐Chavez media directed at the Venezuelan Jewish and Christian communities.”
Even these states do not end the parade of evil. Assaults on religious liberty occur elsewhere. USCIRF pointed to serious abuses in Bahrain, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan. Violations are even evident in Europe, most notably Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, where Muslim women have been barred from voluntarily wearing the hijab.
Despite its best efforts, America cannot make the world free. But at least Americans can work to make the world freer. They should support religious liberty as they go out into the world.