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In Iraq, the 50th Brigade of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been involved in extortion, illegal arrests, kidnappings, and detention of individuals without warrants, often targeting Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities returning to the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar. Rayan al-Kildani, the ruthless leader of this militia who operates under the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was videotaped brutally cutting off the ear of a detainee.
For many years, Uzbekistan presented a bleak picture in a region notorious for poor human rights conditions. Under the country’s late authoritarian leader, Islam Karimov, the government relentlessly repressed all independent religious activity that it did not expressly sanction. In one particularly infamous incident documented in 2002, the bodies of two religious prisoners held at Jasliq Prison—also called the “House of Torture”—were returned to their families with evidence of torture indicating that at least one of them had been boiled alive. A decade later, a popular imam who had fled Uzbekistan and received asylum in Sweden barely survived an assassination attempt that many believed was orchestrated by the government.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated his desire to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque in late May, a possibility he had first raised in March 2019. Should he go forward with his plans, he will not only endanger the future of this world heritage site dear to Christians and Muslims alike, but also undermine interfaith relations in the Middle East and beyond. It must not happen.
Human rights activists don’t often think first of countries like France, Germany, Belgium, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands when they worry about religious freedom violations. This is a mistake.
The government of Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and it deserves no special treatment from the United States. Instead, the U.S. government should hold Turkmenistan accountable for its many violations of human rights and religious freedom by lifting its national security waiver.
For most people, traveling abroad can lead to exciting opportunities and exposure to new cultures. For Muslims from China, traveling abroad can put friends and family at home at risk. In December 2015, Abduhaliq Aziz, a young Muslim from the ancient city of Kashgar, moved to Cairo to study at the renowned Al-Azhar University. Shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities retaliated by detaining Aziz’s parents. Several years after Ablikim Yusuf, a Uyghur Muslim, moved to Pakistan for work, he received a message over WeChat: his brother was in a reeducation camp. Last summer, Qatari authorities nearly deported Yusuf to China while he was transiting through Doha airport; only public outrage and U.S. diplomacy allowed him to settle in Virginia.
During the first few months of 2020, Chinese authorities reportedly shut down at least 48 churches and removed more than 250 crosses. Normally, the government targets unregistered house churches, considering under Chinese law, all religious organizations and venues must be registered. What made this most recent crackdown unusual is that the churches were part of the state-affiliated Three-Self Patriotic Movement. These are venues nominally approved by the government, but even they are not immune to the Communist Party’s war on faith.
While the United States was celebrating American Jewish Heritage Month in May, the global Jewish community was experiencing a further increase in anti-Semitic incidents, which cannot continue.
From the coronavirus pandemic to the use of surveillance, freedom of religion or belief is facing a brave new world of global challenges. As the chair and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we witnessed significant developments in this area throughout 2019. Some severe violators made substantial progress, while some former champions of this fundamental human right experienced worrying backsliding.
Sitting across the table from Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in December 2019 in Washington, D.C. and again in Khartoum in February, we were amazed by the changes his transitional government had made, and planned to make, to a country led for decades by a regime that was one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. After months of protesting in the streets in spite of brutal security forces, Sudan’s people had finally sparked a transition toward a democratic future, with a transitional government that was genuine about reforming oppressive policies, including those designed to persecute individuals because of their religion or belief.

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