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The Philadelphia Inquirer -- Threats to religious freedom

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September 28, 2015 | Daniel I. Mark and Katrina Lantos Swett

The following op-ed appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on September 27, 2015

Washington hosted two dramatically different dignitaries last week - Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both had meetings with President Obama, and the pope became the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress.

These two leaders are on exactly opposite paths: Pope Francis is a stalwart champion of human rights and witness for religious freedom while President Xi heads a regime that is one of the world's most notorious violators of human rights, including religious freedom.

Pope Francis embodies religious freedom's universal message and promise, as cited in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

In contrast, President Xi symbolizes a world in which more than 75 percent of people live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate serious violations of this liberty.

Despite this global crisis for religious freedom, people who cherish this right are found across the globe. Now, people around the world must speak for the persecuted with one powerful, united voice.

Last weekend in New York, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) took its latest step in promoting that aim, bringing together like-minded people from nearly 50 countries for an unprecedented meeting. Cosponsored by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP), the gathering included more than 100 parliamentarians as well as diplomats and civil society and religious leaders. They met next to the United Nations, where the General Assembly is now in its 70th annual session.

Since its launch last November, the IPP has focused on threats to religious freedom from both governments and nonstate actors. Some governments, including China's and North Korea's, are secular tyrannies that suppress religious groups across the board. Other countries, such as Iran and Sudan, elevate a single religion or religious interpretation while persecuting those who embrace alternatives.

These state actors abuse religious freedom in many ways, including by imprisoning people due to their beliefs and actions. In China, for example, Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur Muslim scholar, is serving a life sentence for alleged "separatism." Iran holds hundreds of religious prisoners, from Baha'is to Christians, from Sufis and Sunnis to Shiite reformers and clerics.

At least one electoral democracy is also a major abuser of religious freedom. Pakistan, which a USCIRF delegation visited for the first time in March, has more people on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy than any other country. Pakistan's blasphemy law not only violates freedom of religion but also emboldens nonstate actors, including extremist religious groups, to assault and murder perceived transgressors.

In addition, over the last year, nonstate religious actors have fueled some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. In both Iraq and Syria, ISIS and other violent religious groups have kidnapped and enslaved Yazidi and Christian women and girls, beheaded or crucified men and boys, driven families from their homes, and uprooted 2,000-year-old faith communities that are now threatened with extinction.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has perpetrated mass killings at churches and mass kidnappings of children.

In Burma, Buddhist extremists have assaulted Rohingya Muslims.

In the Central African Republic, fighting between Christians and Muslims has destroyed nearly all the country's mosques.

And these conflicts have forced millions of people to flee for their lives.

The IPP has written over the last nine months to the heads of state of Myanmar, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to the Sudanese foreign minister, and to the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations. Citing international pressure, Pakistan's government introduced reforms to its blasphemy law; Sudan released two jailed Christian pastors; and the North Koreans invited Brazilian members of IPP to Pyongyang to discuss religious freedom concerns.

Last weekend, the IPP's 100 parliamentarians signed the New York Resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

We applaud them for standing for Pope Francis' way of freedom, not President Xi's path of repression.

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