“I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” So said President George W. Bush in 2004. Leave for another day the debate over whether such a belief is more hopeful than realistic. What we do know: Tyrants and terrorists around the world are persecuting, torturing and slaughtering those whose hearts do desire freedom — even the most basic.
Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its annual report covering 37 countries. Thomas Reese, USCIRF’s chair, minced no words: “The Commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations.”
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government commission. Its task: to monitor religious freedom around the world and offer recommendations to Congress, the secretary of state and the president. Its nine unpaid commissioners are appointed either by the White House or congressional leaders. I currently serve as a commissioner. Let me add: Any opinions expressed in this column are mine, not necessarily those of USCIRF.
As I see it, religious freedom is the seed that must be planted in order for other liberties to have a chance to grow. Governments that fail to secure the natural right to believe (or not believe) as one’s conscience dictates, and to worship (or not worship) as one chooses will always repress other liberties — freedom of expression, association and assembly among them.
The International Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1998, requires the U.S. government to designate the most egregious violators of religious freedom as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). The State Department currently designates 10 CPCs. USCIRF’s new report recommends adding six more.
There are an additional 12 countries on USCIRF’s Tier 2 list. The rulers of those lands flagrantly violate religious freedom, though not — or at least not yet — on the level of the CPCs. You won’t be surprised to learn that Turkey has been added to that list.
We might call this an embarrassment of wretchedness — more nations than the commission can comfortably monitor, certainly more than I can talk about in one column. So let me just hit a few of the lowlights.
The new USCIRF report urges the secretary of State to designate Russia a CPC because new Russian laws have effectively criminalized religious speech not authorized by the state. Most recently, Russia banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, accusing the group of posing “a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security.” That’s both unfair and puzzling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses are avowedly apolitical and pacifist.
In China, Uighur Muslims, the Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists are among those being persecuted and whose members have been tortured. Last year, in the words of the USCIRF report, “Authorities evicted thousands of monks and nuns from the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Tibet before demolishing their homes.” The Panchen Lama, who should serve as one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhists, was abducted by the Chinese government when he was six years old. April 25 was his 28th birthday and almost nothing is known about him — not even where he is.
In Iran, the most disfavored religious minority is the Baha’i, though Christians and Sunni Muslims also are subject to “prolonged detention, torture and executions.” Since the election of “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, “the number of individuals from religious minority communities who are in prison because of their beliefs has increased.” Let me introduce you to one: Maryam Naghash Zargaran. A teacher in an orphanage, she dared convert from Islam to Christianity. In 2013, a “Revolutionary Court” convicted her for “propagating against the Islamic regime and collusion intended to harm national security.” She’s been incarcerated and mistreated ever since.
In Pakistan, at least 40 individuals “have been sentenced to death or are serving life sentences for blasphemy.” And in Saudi Arabia, the courts “continue to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, and blasphemy, and a law classifying blasphemy and the promotion of atheism as terrorism has been used to target human rights defenders, among others.” Just last week, Ahmad Al-Shamri, a Saudi who declared himself an atheist, was sentenced to death.
A complicating factor with which USCIRF is attempting to grapple: When dealing with “political Islam,” where does the politics end and the religion begin? To cite one example: In Azerbaijan, a Shia-majority country, the Shia Imam Taleh Bagirov was last year sentenced to prison. Have his human rights been violated? I think so. Has he acted out of religious conviction or political ambition? That’s less clear. And if, as I suspect, he is a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, aren’t those concepts inextricable?
Finally, there was this new and distressing development last year: The State Department and both houses of Congress officially recognized that a genocidal war was being waged by the Islamic State against Christians, Yazidis and some Muslim communities as well.
There is no more lethal threat to religious liberty than genocide. Religious communities can endure oppression for centuries and then flourish again when the jackboot is lifted. But extermination is forever.
USCIRF’s commissioners have voted to make genocide a priority; to begin to consider how genocide might be more effectively addressed by the United States and what we call, perhaps more hopefully than realistically, the international community.
Military force is now being used to dislodge the Islamic State from the lands it had conquered. That’s necessary. But much more will need to be done if the ancient religious minorities of the Middle East are to make it out of this decade alive.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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