The U.S State Department released its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom on June 2, 2022. This comprehensive report provides a broad overview of the state of religious freedom for almost 200 countries around the globe.
Every year since 1998, the State Department has issued the report – in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 – in an effort to grow and promote this fundamental human right for every citizen of every nation. The report works toward that goal by reporting on laws, policies, and practices affecting religious freedom in each country assessed, as well U.S government actions taken in response to report findings each year.
The report is noteworthy in its attempt to provide a comprehensive and objective survey of religious freedom violations and protections globally, as Paul Marshall, Director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, noted in an interview responding to the release of this year’s report.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated in his remarks and in a tweet announcing the report, “Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of our deepest held values and a universal human right – it’s also a vital foreign policy priority. We must do more to combat rising forms of hate.”
Rashad Hussain, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, summarized the landscape of religious freedom around the globe in three major themes:
Government Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Governments use laws and policies to restrict religious freedom and marginalize religious minority communities.
Government actions against religious and ethnic minorities in Burma and China have constituted genocide. Burma has seen a trying year of governmental instability and militaristic genocide against the Rohingya people. According to the report, more than 740,000 Rohingya had crimes committed against them by military forces, and more than 144,000 people, mostly Muslim Rohingya, were placed in camps by the end of 2021. On November 15, Secretary Blinken redesignated Burma as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). President Biden also issued an executive order that designates a number of military leaders who took part in the military coup and acted unjustly. This executive order includes restrictions on Burmese government assets located in America and reallocation of funds from the Burmese government and military to healthcare and civil society groups within the country.
The United States has also determined China’s treatment of Uyghurs constitutes genocide. Uyghurs make up approximately 58 percent of the Xinjiang region’s population, around 15 million people. The Secretary of State defines the atrocities committed since March 2017 as genocide and as “crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim.” The Chinese government characterized Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists in state media, adding to negative societal responses to Uyghurs concerning travel, business, and difficulty finding or keeping employment.
Following the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021, religious minority communities face significant security concerns. The Taliban squelches the rights of women, “often under the banner of religion” and Sharia law. They closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, and reopened the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, with the intent to enforce their strict interpretation of sharia law on all citizens. Members of the Christian and Bahá’i communities fear disclosing their religious affiliations due to violence and persecution. Sikhs and Hindus are able to practice their religion, but live in constant fear of persecution; they can either flee to other regions or comply with Islamic regulations and practices.
Religious minorities in Algeria continue to face legal restrictions on religious freedom. In 2020, Algeria’s constitution was changed, removing the guarantee that freedom of conscience would be protected. The language now includes “freedom of opinion” and “freedom to exercise worship” only. Furthermore, the Ministry of Interior has repeatedly ignored requests from the United Methodist Church, Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), Seventh-Day Adventist, and Ahmadi religious communities for registration, which the law requires for any religious group to legally receive funding and government recognition. This has led to the closure of numerous churches and further restrictions on religious practice. For Catholics in Oran, on the other hand, there have been continued interfaith conversations among Catholics and Muslims, renovation of a Catholic chapel and Virgin Mary statue, and positive relationships with authorities.
Growing Societal Intolerance
Increasing societal intolerance is contributing to increased attacks against religious minorities globally.
In Iran, the constitution states that the country is an Islamic republic, but also grants “Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies.” There is clear intolerance for those who do convert from Islam, but also those who simply practice a religion other than those recognized by the state. In particular, members of the Baha’i community continue to experience discrimination and harrassment across society. Yarsani children experience ostracization at school and Yarsani men have difficulty finding employment. The U.S government reported officials issued “public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in internal forums” to address refusal to resolve societal intolerance experienced by religious minorities.
In Pakistan, religious minorities such as Christians, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, and Shia Muslims face violent attacks from individuals, mobs, and terrorist groups. Many of these attacks are “provoked” by a member of a minority faith being accused of blaspheming Islam. Those accused of blasphemy also face severe threats from the government, which has legal power to sentence blasphemers to death.
Civil Society and Government Collaboration Instigates “Hope and Change”
While there is still work to be done, collaboration between civil society and governments in some countries have seen some measure of improvement in respect for religious freedom in both policy and practice.
For example, Pope Francis was welcomed to the country of Iraq for the first time this past year. The papal visit provided an opportunity for Christian and interfaith ceremonies, helping to raise awareness of the difficulties Christia
ns currently face in Iraq. Notably, Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani met with Pope Francis and stated “his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, with their full constitutional rights.”
However, persecution, violence, and harassment (largely propagated by ISIS) still continue against religious minority communities in the region. NGOs report harassment and abuse from the state-sponsored and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. The Central Government of Iraq still upholds laws that discriminate against religious minority communities. Large percentages of the minorities who were displaced by ISIS still have not been able to return home due to a number of factors including security, economic, and political disputes that have left already persecuted Iraqi to face significant challenges to their survival as well as the reconstruction of their communities.
In Egypt, despite continued restrictions on civic spaces, there were also positive steps taken with regard to continued licenses granted for churches and other measures. While government restrictions and social tensions still exist at various levels, there has been significant high profile support for the importance of religious freedom. In September, the government launched its National Strategy for Human Rights, including a “Freedom of Religion and Belief” section. In November, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II hosted a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Family House (Beit al-’Aila), established in the aftermath of the bombing of All Saint’s Church in Alexandria. In his remarks at the event, al-Tayyeb said that freedom of religion was “one of the most precious human rights.” However, restrictions still exist that hinder the fundamental rights of many Egyptians and minority groups like the Bahá’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are still affected by discriminatory practices such as including religious designations on government-issued identification documents.
Progress has been made in Jordan, where the government increased security in Christian areas during the Christmas season to protect worshipers from security threats. Parliament approved the creation of the Baptism Site Commission, a group overseeing public lands next to the Jordan River, where Christians believe Jesus was baptized. The purpose of this Commission is to “promote religious tourism, support local communities, and provide job opportunities.” However, converts to Christianity from Islam reported cases of harrassment, questioning by security forces, and instances of government surveillance, particularly among members of unregistered Christian denominations. Moreover, government policy does not recognize the Baha’i faith, and adherents to the religion reported challenges to acquiring some personal status documents, like marriage certificates.
Advancing Religious Freedom Globally in 2022
Positive developments should encourage us as we fight for freedom of religious belief and action in the Middle East and beyond. However, we should not allow small victories to obscure our view of the immense problems that still face hundreds of thousands of religious minorities across the globe.
If leaders in the United States ignore the right to religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, they neglect a fundamental reality of human life. As Secretary Blinken observed, “religious freedom is the first freedom enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It’s been recognized by nations around the world as a human right, including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The United States must remember that religious freedom is its first freedom. We should be an example for all other nations of the peaceful pluralism afforded to countries that protect religious freedom for all people.