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The Hill -- Congress and president reaffirm international religious freedom

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October 27, 2015 | Robert P. George and Eric P. Schwartz

The following op-ed appeared in The Hill on October 27, 2015

Today, Oct. 27, is International Religious Freedom Day, which this year marks the 17th anniversary of the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).

IRFA created a first-ever international religious freedom office in the State Department.  It also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, as an independent, non-partisan entity to monitor religious freedom abroad and make recommendations to the president, secretary of State, and Congress.

Less than two weeks ago, on Oct. 16, President Obama signed a bill -- passed by Congress on Oct. 6 -- reauthorizing USCIRF for another four years. 

We are grateful that Congress and the president have enabled USCIRF to continue its important work at a time of maximum need:

According to several Pew studies, most of the people in the world live in countries that seriously violate this liberty.  

As we indicated in our latest annual report, which was released this past spring, religious freedom conditions worldwide have not improved, and situations remain particularly dismal in countries we cited as perpetrating or tolerating the worst abuses.   Such nations include those our Commission recommended that the State Department designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC), marking them as the world’s most severe violators.   They also included those we listed as Tier 2 countries due to violations that, while not rising to CPC status, remain serious.

When we reviewed the 16 countries we recommended last year for CPC status, we saw little improvement and in many cases, signs of further deterioration.  In addition to recommending again this year these 16 as the most severe violators, the Commission was compelled to add a 17th country to our list – Central African Republic. 

Regarding Tier 2 countries, religious freedom conditions likewise remain troubling.  Russia’s continued failure to respect religious minorities at home and in territories it has occupied merits its Tier 2 status.  

This process of publicly designating the worst violators is a valuable tool in the effort to promote religious freedom.  By bearing witness in this public way, we keep faith with victims, rally support for their rights, and bring pressure to bear against government violators by publicly shaming them for abusing basic rights. 

Across the world, religious freedom violators consist of state and non-state actors.

Some state actors, like China and North Korea, are secular tyrannies which suppress religious groups across the board.   Others, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, enthrone a single religion or religious interpretation, while persecuting those embracing alternatives.

These state actors abuse religious freedom in many ways, including imprisoning people due to their religious beliefs, actions, or advocacy.  

China, for example, handed Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur Muslim scholar, a life sentence for alleged “separatism.”  Iran keeps hundreds of people, from Baha’is to Christians, Sufi and Sunni Muslims to Shi’a Muslim reformers and clerics, imprisoned for reasons relating to religion.  

Not even electoral democracies are immune from holding religious prisoners.  In Pakistan, which a USCIRF delegation visited for the first time in March, more people like Aasia Bibi, a Christian farm hand, are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy than anywhere else.  

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws not only violate freedom of religion and expression; they embolden extremists to assault perceived transgressors.  These attackers have increasingly victimized Pakistan’s religious minorities, from Shi’a to Christians, Hindus to Ahmadis.

For these reasons, we have urged the State Department to designate Pakistan a CPC. 

Over the past year, non-state actors have been fueling some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.  Among them is ISIL. From Yazidis to Christians, Shi’a to dissenting Sunnis, no religious group has been free of ISIL’s depredations in Syria and Iraq.   

Beyond Iraq and Syria, non-state actors have been wreaking similar havoc.  

Boko Haram has cut a wide path of terror across Nigeria, which a USCIRF delegation visited in May. 

In Burma, which a USCIRF delegation visited in August 2014, Buddhist extremists have assaulted Rohingya Muslims.   

And in Central African Republic, fighting between Christians and Muslims has destroyed nearly every mosque in the country.

And in many of these countries, governments – by aligning themselves with particular religious groups and discriminating against others in their efforts to sustain their power – have fostered conditions leading to abuses by non-state actors from the Middle East to Asia. 

As we mark International Religious Freedom Day, we believe that in spite of the bleak landscape for liberty, the desire for greater freedom burns brightly in people’s hearts.    

Thanks to timely action by our executive and legislative branches, USCIRF will keep promoting religious freedom, prioritizing the sacred rights and solemn duties of conscience. 

George serves as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).  Schwartz serves as a USCIRF vice chairman.