International Religious Freedom Report

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week, the U.S. State Dept. released the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report. The annual report to Congress describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world.

This report shines light on the challenges that people face as they seek nothing more than the basic religious freedom.

“This report shines light on the challenges that people face as they seek nothing more than the basic religious freedom, the right to worship as they wish,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. “Its release is a demonstration of the abiding commitment of the American people and the entire U.S. government to the advancement of freedom of religion worldwide.”

Kerry described the report as a “clear-eyed, objective look” at the state of religious freedom around the world. “When necessary, yes, it does directly call out some of our close friends, as well as some countries with whom we seek stronger ties,” he said. “It does so in order to try to make progress, even though we know that it may cause some discomfort.”

National security concern

When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten those whom they target, according to Kerry, they also threaten their country’s own stability. “Attacks on religious freedom are therefore both a moral and a strategic national security concern for the United States,” he said.

The report chronicles discrimination and violence in countries ranging from established democracies to entrenched dictatorships.

Kerry said the report was informed by a broad spectrum of contributors: faith leaders, religious organizations and journalists. “Some of these individuals showed immense bravery in coming forward and sharing their observations,” he pointed out. “Their stories show that we as an international community have a lot of work to do.”

The report chronicles discrimination and violence in countries ranging from established democracies to entrenched dictatorships. It documents that governments around the globe continue to detain, imprison, torture and even kill people for their religious beliefs. The report identifies global problems of discrimination and violence against religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Kerry called out some troubling trends identified in the report. One is the potential rise of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic rhetoric persists in some Middle Eastern media and too often appears in public discourse in some countries in Europe, especially where anti-Semitic parties have gained seats in parliaments. Violent attacks continue to be committed against Jews in Europe.

Kerry announced that he has named Ira Forman, who led President Obama’s reelection campaign in the Jewish community, as his envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws

Another troubling trend is increasing use of laws governing blasphemy and apostasy.

Blasphemy and apostasy laws violate fundamental freedoms of expression and religion, and ought to be repealed, according to Kerry. “These laws are frequently used to repress dissent, to harass political opponents, and to settle personal vendettas,” he said. “Because we defend others’ rights of expression, we are also ensuring that we can express our own views and practice our own faith without fearing for our own safety or our own lives.”

“Religious freedom is essential for a stable, peaceful, and thriving society,” said Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This is the standard against which we assess religious freedom and the International Religious Freedom Report.”

Cook said the report seeks to advance religious freedom by shining a spotlight on abuses and violations. “As Secretary Kerry said, when a country fails to provide equal protection of religious freedom for all, the groundwork is laid for political instability and sectarian violence,” she said. “When a government favors one group or set of beliefs and restricts the rights of others, some in society may take that as tacit approval to further target marginalized groups.”

Other troubling trends

Cook noted other troubling trends.

Thousands of people around the world are jailed because of what they believe or don’t believe, Cook said. In Iran, for example, more than 116 Baha’is are in prison for teaching and expressing their faith, and many Christians, Sufis and Sunnis are facing similar treatment.

“We seek the release of all individuals detained or imprisoned because of their beliefs,” she said.

Many governments fail to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes motivated by religious animosity, creating a climate of impunity that fueled further discrimination and violence.

In Egypt, for instance, the government failed to appropriately investigate and prosecute perpetrators, and often did not effectively intervene when sectarian violence arose.

In Pakistan, religious minorities continue to encounter societal discrimination and violence, and authorities frequently fail to arrest the perpetrators.

In Nigeria, elements of the extremist sect Boko Haram claimed the lives of both Christians and Muslims. The government response has involved gross violations of human rights of a civilian population and deepened impunity.

Government responsibility

Governments must fulfill their responsibility to condemn religious intolerance and bring to justice perpetrators of abuses,” Cook declared. “Just last month, I traveled to China where I pressed government officials to uphold the right to religious freedom for all and to stop abusing this universal right. The government restricts the practices of many groups, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, unregistered Christian congregations, and Falun Gong practitioners.”

Cook said societal intolerance against religious minorities is on the rise. “Too often this intolerance finds expression in acts of violence, vandalism and desecration,” she said. In Iraq, for example, extremists target religious ceremonies, leading people not to attend services out of fear for their safety.

Anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination are evident in places as diverse as Europe and Asia. Sectarian violence directed at Muslims spread to central Burma in March 2013, resulting in casualties, displacement and the destruction of places of worship.

Positive developments

“Violations of religious freedom easily capture the world’s attention,” Cook pointed out, in highlighting some positive developments that tend to fly under the media radar. She said restrictions on religious freedom remain in Vietnam, but the government took a step forward by allowing large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants. And, Turkey they loosened its restrictions on religious attire, allowing female students to wear headscarves in certain religious classes and in certain Islamic schools. “As you will see and read, the challenges are daunting,” Cook said, “but we remain committed to working tirelessly to ensure religious freedom for all.”

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