that the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, in conjunction with USCIRF and Amnesty International USA, has launched the Defending Freedoms Project to increase attention to and support for human rights and religious freedom around the world?

Through the Defending Freedoms Project, Members of Congress adopt prisoners of conscience and advocate for their release. Sadly, many people today are not free, but languish in jail cells around the world. They are imprisoned because of who they are, what they believe, and how they have chosen to express their convictions. These prisoners of conscience are unjustly prevented from enjoying the most fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international human rights standards.

To kick start this project, Representatives Frank Wolf and James McGovern adopted the first two prisoners of conscience. Other Members... Read More

...that hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in Iranian prisons even as the country went to the polls last week to elect a new President?

Last month, the UK-based Guardian newspaper launched on online database that identified some 2,500 prisoners of conscience who either are languishing in Iranian jails or awaiting a call from authorities to serve out their convictions with prison terms.Among the hundreds of prisoners of conscience are religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Sufis, Zoroastrians, Sunnis, and majority Shi’a clerics and dissidents.

Over the past few years, the Iranian government has imposed harsh prison sentences on prominent reformers from the Shi’a majority community for simply exercising their internationally-protected rights of freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion... Read More

…that both the UN and OSCE have special mechanisms focusing on freedom of religion or belief?

Both the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional organization comprised of 57 participating States from Europe, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and Canada, have conventions and agreements that protect freedom of religion or belief and related rights, including on assembly, association and expression. Both the UN and OSCE also have special mechanisms that can be used to advance religious freedom and call attention to violations.

The UN Human Rights Council has an independent expert, or Special Rapporteur, on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Special Rapporteur, currently Professor Heiner Bielefeldt of Germany, monitors freedom of religion or belief worldwide; communicates with governments about alleged violations; conducts country visits; and brings religious freedom concerns to the UN and... Read More

...that particularly severe religious freedom violations are increasingly perpetrated by non-state actors in failing or failed states?

One of the greatest emerging threats to freedom of religion or belief comes not from the actions of governments but from non-state actors. Non-state actors vary greatly and include individuals, mobs, vigilante groups, anti-government insurgents, militant organizations, and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and/or are members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network. They differ significantly in ideology, purpose, end goals, and level of international and domestic recognition, and generally are motivated by a violent religious ideology to impose their religious beliefs on local populations and harshly punish those who do not abide by their religious edicts.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, violent religious extremist groups operate in failed and poorly governed states to both impose their extremist ideologies on... Read More

...that the United States government continues to detain many asylum seekers in jails or jail-like facilities?

Between July and December 2012, USCIRF staff toured 10 detention facilities nationwide and met with asylum seekers and officials from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). The goal of the tour was to assess ICE’s progress implementing reforms announced in 2009 that would create a new immigration detention system with facilities based on civil, not penal, models in locations with access to legal, medical, and transportation services. The announced reforms reflect USCIRF recommendations that, when detention is necessary, asylum seekers in Expedited Removal should be held in such civil models. Detaining asylum seekers under penal conditions with criminals may retraumatize this vulnerable population and cause them prematurely to withdraw their asylum claims.

As described in a recently-issued... Read More

...that Europe’s largest internal armed conflict is in Russia’s North Caucasus, particularly Dagestan and Chechnya?

The conflict in Russia’s North Caucasus region is the largest internal armed conflict in Europe, pitting Russian government forces against armed insurgents -- many of whom seek a regional Shari’ah-based political unit. The fighting has had a devastating impact on not only the lives of civilians but also religious freedomthroughout the region.

Since thelate 1990’s, observers report that the Salafist form of Islam has been spreading in the North Caucasus, particularly in Dagestan. Its growth is influenced by the negative official treatment of conservative Muslims, local traditions of religion and ethnicity, ties to the Chechen conflict, and the roles of local religious leaders. Most local Salafis are peaceful, but face a difficult integration into local societies and economies. In Dagestan, the North Caucasus’ most violent region, Salafi... Read More

...that the Bangladeshi government is facing widespread pressure to adopt a blasphemy law that carries the death penalty?

Since February 2013, the Bangladeshi government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced widespread pressure to adopt a blasphemy law that includes capital punishment for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The country recently has been experiencing widespread protests and violence associated with this call.

This pressure began in April, after four internet bloggers were arrested for “harming religious sentiments” in their postings on Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal. (Bangladesh, not the international community, established the tribunal to adjudicate alleged war crimes perpetrated in 1971 during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan.) They also blogged about the conviction and death sentence for a leading Jamaat-e-Islami leader, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. Jamaat-e-Islami is the largest religious... Read More

...that USCIRF’s 2013 Annual Report recommends that 15 countries be designated as the worst violators of religious freedom?

USCIRF issued its 2013 Annual Report on April 30. The report highlights the state of religious freedom abroad during 2012 and identifies governments that are the most egregious violators of this fundamental freedom. USCIRF’s 2013 Annual Report includes more countries than ever before -- 29 specifically are addressed and at least 22 additional countries are discussed in thematic sections.

The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) mandates that USCIRF issue the Annual Report to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress by May 1 of each year, In the report, which also is issued publicly, USCIRF recommends that the Secretary of State re-designate the following eight nations as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, for their... Read More

...that police detained over 900 people from Beijing’s Shouwang Church last year for trying to hold outdoor worship services?

For the past two years, Shouwang members have tried to hold weekly services in Beijing parks only to face repeated detentions, the loss of jobs and residency permits and, in the case of one young woman, sexual abuse during police detention. All ten of Shouwang church’s leaders remain in home detention to this day.

Shouwang was the largest of Beijing’s Protestant “house churches,” so-called because they often begin in people’s homes before seeking more permanent gathering space. Protestant ‘house churches’ in China are illegal because they refuse, for both theological and political reasons, to join the state-approved Three-Self Protestant Movement (TSPM) or the China Christian Council (CCC).

Shouwang Church at its height had over 1,000 members and was meeting in a Beijing restaurant before the landlord terminated its... Read More

...that two years later there still have been no prosecutions stemming from Nigeria’s presidential post-election violence that killed more than 800?

In April 2011, immediately following the re-election of President Goodluck Jonathan, more than 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced in three days of rioting in Nigeria’s northern states. Protests by supporters of the main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari -- a northern Muslim who lost the presidential election, quickly turned to violence against Christians who were thought to be sympathetic to President Jonathan, a Christian. While political issues sparked the violence, its consequences were severe violations of religious freedom, including individuals killed because of their religious identity and churches and mosques attacked. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) reported that at least 187 people were killed, 243 people injured, and more than 430 churches burned or destroyed. Some of the... Read More