Around the globe, religious freedom under assault

Sunday, May 10, 2009

At a time when religious persecution is at the heart of the world’s most violent conflicts, religious freedom matters. That’s why the 2009 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom should be required reading for policymakers in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Released on May 1, the report documents in chilling detail the global assault on freedom of religion and belief, making a powerful case for the need to take religious freedom more seriously in U.S. foreign policy.

The report doesn’t come from the left or the right. It comes from a federal commission that is independent and bipartisan under the leadership of 10 commissioners who did their homework.

This year the commission names 13 “countries of particular concern” — Burma, North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — that engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom.

Another 11 countries are on the commission’s watch list: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

The worst of the worst include China, where unregistered Protestants are frequently arrested, Falun Gong practitioners are imprisoned and tortured, Catholics are detained and harassed, and Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists are repressed in growing numbers.

Conditions are less severe, but still serious, in “watch list” countries. Venezuela, for example, is now a hotbed of anti-Semitism fomented by the anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions of the government under President Hugo Chavez. As a consequence, many Jews have fled the country.

Religious freedom is practically nonexistent in Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States with a long history of promising, but failing, to do better. Members of minority Muslim groups — including Shiites, who make up 10-15% of the population — are frequently detained and harassed. Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others among the nearly three million expatriate workers must conform to Saudi religious customs. Although non-Muslim workers are supposed to be permitted to worship in private, their services are often subject to surveillance and raids by Saudi authorities.

Just about every religious group, it seems, suffers persecution somewhere in the world today. Christians are targeted in Iraq, Baha’is are arrested in Iran, Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in Tajikistan, Muslims suffer discrimination in Russia, and the list goes on. (To read the full report, visit

Beyond delivering bad news, the commission also makes extensive policy recommendations to the Obama administration and Congress, including asking the secretary of state to designate “countries of particular concern (CPCs).” Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the president is required to take action opposing violations of religious freedom in countries so designated.

Given the complex economic and political realities of American ties with some of the worst offenders, religious freedom and other human rights issues often take a back seat in U.S. foreign policy. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been a CPC since 2004 — but a State Department waiver lets the Saudis off the hook.

Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where the U.S. is deeply involved in nation-building, conditions for freedom of religion and belief continue to deteriorate. A strong case can be made that the lack of religious freedom is one of the greatest barriers to peace and security in both societies.

We ignore this global crisis at our peril. Consider the hard reality behind the idealism that animates the commission’s report: International religious freedom is both an issue of national security for the United States and an essential condition for building societies that are free and democratic.

Assaults on freedom of religion and belief aren’t side issues; they are urgent matters of conscience that must be at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555
Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: