The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka offered a reminder both dramatic and tragic that religious minorities suffer brutally around the world. What made that instance unusual is that members of a minority faith, Muslims, targeted members of another minority faith, Christians. The more usual persecutors in Sri Lanka are Buddhist nationalists, who routinely target both Christians and Muslims.
But Sri Lanka is not considered to be one of the world’s worst examples of religious repression. In many nations government restriction combines with social hostility to make life extraordinarily difficult for those who believe differently. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has just released its latest report on religious liberty around the world.
The Commission highlighted 33 countries or other entities for their uniquely harsh treatment of people of faith. Talking about “religious liberty” has an ivory tower quality to it. But whether members of minority faiths are free typically has a huge impact on their daily lives: discrimination, harassment, and persecution, often violent, are a constant for many people.
USCIRF cited 16 nations as “countries of particular concern.” That means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations” of religious freedom. Five non‐state actors were rated as “entities of particular concern.” Following slightly behind were 12 countries placed on the Commission’s Tier 2 list, meaning they met one or two of the three tests for CPC status.
The 16 worst nations are Burma/Myanmar, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. The five terrible entities are Hay’at Tahrir al‐Sham (Syria), Houthis (Yemen), Islamic State (Syria and Iraq), al‐Shabab (Somali), and Taliban (Afghanistan). The slightly less bad persecutors are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.
There are two broad categories of persecutors. The most important are Islamic, mostly in Muslim majority states. The genesis of violence in 10 of 16 and five of five resulted from Islam. Seven of the 16 are communist or former communist (the three Central Asian states are both Muslim and communist, though in this case the latter factor likely predominates). Burma is Buddhist/authoritarian. Eritrea is generic totalitarian, if such a thing can exist. Nine of the 12 Tier 2 are Muslim. Four are communist or former communist (the two Central Asian nations are both but lean communist on persecution). India is majority Hindu.
In only two of the 33 named are Christians also persecutors. Central African Republic is majority Christian and politics is entwined with the religious violence; there has been Christian retaliation against Muslim communities. Moscow appears to persecute in support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Otherwise Christians are long out of the persecution business, thankfully.
Some of the violations are on a mass scale. China undertook mass incarceration of Muslim Uighurs in reeducation camps. A decade ago in its first report USCIRF highlighted their persecuted status, noting that they were “imprisoned for their religious belief, association or practice.” The situation has grown far worse.
In its latest assessment, explained the Commission:
Uighur Muslims are constantly surveilled, their phones confiscated and scanned, their skin pricked for blood samples to collect their DNA, their children prohibited from attending mosque. Even worse, the Chinese government has ripped entire families apart, detaining between 800,000 and two million adults in concentration camps and relegating some of their children to orphanages. Families cannot contact one another due to fear of government monitoring; thus, countless Uighur Muslims have no idea where their loved ones are or if they are even alive.
Burma/Myanmar has engaged in mass ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya — nearly a million people have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh — while Christian ethnic groups such as the Karen spent years resisting the brutal Burmese military. Tragically, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, though a heroic advocate of democracy, has proved to be a Burman nationalist, exercising little control—but also evidencing little concern—over the military’s ongoing depredations. Observed USCIRF: “Victims of severe human rights and religious freedom violations have little hope for justice; this includes Rohingya and other Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, as well as ethnic Kachin, Shan, Karen, Rakhine, and Chin.” Despite exposure of these crimes, “Burma’s military and nonstate actors continued to target with discrimination and violence” religious minorities.
North Korea imprisons up to 50,000 Christians, seen as a threat since their loyalty transcends politics and the Kim family cult. Explained the Commission: “The North Korean regime has an appalling human rights record and places unjust restrictions on its people’s inherent right to freedom of religion or belief.” Outside of a few official churches faith is effectively forbidden: “The government has been known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers and their family members, whether or not they are similarly religious.”
Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally which has promoted fundamentalist, intolerant Wahhabism around the globe, is essentially a totalitarian state when it comes to religion. Despite adopting social reforms, the government, noted USCIRF, “maintained a ban on non‐Muslim public religious observance and continued to arrest, detain, and harass individuals for dissent, blasphemy, and apostasy. The Saudi government continued to violate the rights of Shi’a Muslims and non‐Muslim minorities, and to advocate a doctrine of religious intolerance.”
In Pakistan “extremist groups and societal actors continued to discriminate against and attack religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Ahmadis, and Shi’a Muslims.” Blasphemy laws are used with special damage against religious minorities. While controlling territory, ISIS engaged in mass murder, religious cleansing, and sexual slavery against Christians and other minority faiths, including non‐compliant Muslims. The Hay’at Tahir al‐Sham, an al‐Qaeda affiliate, rose in influence among insurgents, and, observed the panel, “repressed religious minorities,” including “the forcible confiscation of property from Christian families and other forms of sectarian violence.”
Eritrea has been known as the North Korea of Africa. Despite some hope for liberalization after normalization of relations with Ethiopia, noted USCIRF, “with no improvement in religious freedom and other human rights conditions in Eritrea, the opening enabled a surge in Eritrean refugees freely crossing into Ethiopia.” In Iran religious freedom continues to trend negative, “with the Iranian government heightening its systematic targeting of Muslims (particularly Sunni Muslims and Sufis), Baha’is, and Christians.”
Hundreds of Christians have been killed and thousands have been driven from their homes in Nigeria. Indeed, the Muslim Fulani have surpassed the Islamic extremist Boko Haram in violent attacks on Christians. Discrimination and violence are particularly notable at the state level, but, said the Commission, “the Nigerian federal government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In India Christians and Muslims are at risk of mob violence and government indifference. The problem has worsened under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi. Noted USCIRF: “in countries like India, it is increasingly difficult to separate religion and politics, a tactic that is sometimes intentional by those who seek to discriminate against and restrict the rights of certain religious communities.” Even the traditionally secular Congress party has begun to appeal to religious prejudice.
Security ties with America do nothing to prevent religious repression. In Afghanistan, warned the panel, “non‐Muslim groups like Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs remained endangered minorities—many fled the country and many of their community leaders who remained were killed.” In Egypt “anti‐Christian mob violence occurred with impunity and regularity in Upper Egypt; on several occasions, these incidents came in direct response to efforts by local Christians to legally register their churches.” In Iraq ISIS “singled out for genocide” Yazidis and Christians. Even after the group’s defeat uncertainty remains on whether they can return, while the national government “maintained and enforced restrictions on religious freedom, such as anti‐blasphemy laws and official intolerance of some religious communities.”
Elsewhere the violence and repression is more modest in scope, but growing. For instance, USCIRF only recently added Russia to the persecutorial pantheon: “The government continued to target ‘nontraditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism.” Moscow has focused its prosecutorial wrath on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a small sect notorious for its commitment to proselytism. In the Crimea, seized from Ukraine, and the Donbass, held by Russian‐backed separatists, Muslim Tartars and non‐members of the Russian Orthodox Church, respectively, have suffered significantly.
The rest of those cited by USCIRF — as well as many others which did not make the panel’s cut—also interfere with the most fundamental human right, choosing how to respond to the transcendent. Governments unwilling to protect such beliefs are unlikely to respect freedom of conscience in any other realm. Indeed, religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the mine, the test of any government’s view of human rights.
The most fundamental role of governments should be to protect their citizens in their exercise of religious faith. Yet as the Commission documented in its latest report, in many cases it is the state which is the chief oppressor. In other instances, officials stand by, abetting if not aiding private violence, harassment, and discrimination. When governments refuse to fulfill their responsibility, others must step in to help defend all believers.
Concluded the Commission: “Across the globe, the collective voices of those fighting for freedom of religion or belief must consistently sound the alarm against state and nonstate actors who perpetrate and tolerate such abuses. These violators must be held accountable. The impunity must end.” That is right. We all share the duty to fight for freedom of conscience.