State Department Releases its 2020 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

May 12, 2021

Today, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken formally released the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which I addressed during an interview on EWTN News Nightly

Biden Administration Claims the US is Committed to Religious Freedom Worldwide | EWTN News Nightly (May 13, 2021)

Biden Administration Claims the US is Committed to Religious Freedom Worldwide | EWTN News Nightly (May 13, 2021)

This is the 23rd religious freedom report that the State Department has produced. These annual reports provide an assessment of the religious freedom situation in nearly 200 countries around the world and a description of U.S. government responses to these concerns over the past year.

As Secretary Blinken said today, this report is vital because “religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human – to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private,” and yet it is under threat in many places. Religious freedom is a universal right that applies to everyone, everywhere, no matter where they live, what they believe, or what they don’t believe. 

Unfortunately, however, that is not the reality in far too many places around the globe. Violations of religious freedom take many forms and impact people and communities of every religious background. 

Key Themes for the 2020 Religious Freedom Report

In presenting the report, Daniel Nadel, Director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, highlighted four themes of particular interest: 

  1. Repressive government restrictions include criminalizing religious exercise or expression through blasphemy laws, such as in Pakistan or Egypt, or regulations on religious attire or other forms of religious practice. 

  2. Discriminatory regulation of religious life, such as registration laws, can be weaponized, for example, to prevent organizations such as Christians and other minorities in Algeria from legally forming religious institutions or houses of worship. 

  3. Escalating religious discrimination that takes the form of hate crimes or incendiary rhetoric that often promotes exclusivist nationalist themes that fuel violence against certain communities, such as anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, or anti-Christian rhetoric.

  4. Religious freedom violations as an early warning indicator of mass atrocities: As we’ve seen in recent years with the genocide committed against Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities in the Middle East, or more recently in Burma against Muslims, Christians, and other minority communities, religious freedom violations are often the prelude to mass atrocities. As was cited today with the recent coup in Burma, one activist said those who previously were repressing religious minorities “have turned those tools on all of us now.” China has also shown this overwhelming tendency as decades of repression against religious communities of all sorts has now reached genocidal levels against Uyghur Muslims, and China shows signs of continuing to expand these repressive efforts. Additionally, across Africa—including Ethiopia’s Tigray region, in northern Nigeria, and the Sahel—religious freedom dynamics are directly linked to escalating violence. 

Translating the Report into Policy and Practice

This is the first religious freedom report from the Biden administration. Now comes the opportunity to act on it and translate these findings into policy and practice. This administration must meaningfully incorporate religious freedom objectives into its foreign policy priorities. As with any administration, there will be a few key indicators to watch. 

First is the old phrase that “personnel is policy.” As Tom Farr recommended to the Biden transition team, an important indicator is the quick appointment of a highly qualified Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. This should be someone who understands the depth of the issue personally and who knows foreign policy and diplomacy and can get the job done well.

Second, is consistency on the issue, and addressing religious freedom concerns not only with rival countries, such as China, North Korea, Russia or Iran, but also pressing allies who are committing or allowing severe violations of religious freedom, like Turkey, Egypt, Israel, or Saudi Arabia

The designation of Countries of Particular Concern (due within 90 days from the release of the report) will be an important opportunity to demonstrate such consistency. In April, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its recommendations. If the State Department chooses not to follow them, they are to report to Congress the reasoning for not doing so.

Finally, it will be important for religious freedom to be integrated into policy and prog
rams across the government, such as in humanitarian assistance to persecuted communities or in programs supporting good governance and inclusive societies. Such integration should remain an emphasis at USAID under Administrator Samantha Power. Additionally, the United States has played an important global leadership role in advancing international religious freedom, something Secretary Blinken highlighted again today. This leadership can continue through mechanisms like the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance

As Secretary Blinken rightly said, religious freedom goes to the heart of what it means to be human, and thus it remains vital that religious freedom is protected for all people, everywhere.