Religious freedom remains out of reach for a significant number of believers in Iran, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, and China, according to a major International Religious Freedom report released this spring.
Released annually by the U.S. State Department in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the report tracks the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories. Repeat offenders on the list aren’t the only problem areas.
“We’re seeing anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide, including here in the United States as well as across Europe,” warned U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken as he introduced the report in Washington, D.C. on May 12. “It’s a dangerous ideology that history has shown is often linked with violence. We must vigorously oppose it wherever it occurs.”
Blinken named Iran for continued intimidation, harassment, and arrests of members of minority faith groups, including Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims. The top U.S. diplomat also singled out military coup leaders in Burma as among those responsible for ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against the Rohingya ethnic minority, most of whom are Muslim.
“Religious freedom is a human right; in fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human – to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private,” Blinken stated, pointing to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution.
According to the Pew Research Center, 56 countries have high or severe restrictions on religious freedom. Blinken expressed concern that anti-Muslim hatred is still widespread in many countries, stating that it is “a serious problem for the United States as well as in Europe.”
The report lists:
Russia, where authorities continue to harass, detain, and seize property of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as members of Muslim minority groups on the pretense of alleged extremism.
Nigeria, where courts continue to convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term imprisonment or even death.
Saudi Arabia, which remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living there. Authorities continue to jail human rights activists like Raif Badawi, sentenced in 2014 to a decade in prison and a thousand lashes for speaking about his beliefs.
China, which broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and members of other religious and ethnic minority groups, including the arbitrary detention of Falun Gongpractitioners.
The report isn’t entirely bad news: Blinken notes in his comments introducing the report that some countries have taken positive steps forward.
The civilian-led transitional government in Sudan is named for its repeal of apostasy laws and public order laws that had been used to harass members of religious minority groups. Similarly, Uzbekistan’s government has released hundreds of people previously imprisoned because of their beliefs. Blinken also noted the release of 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenistan who are conscientious objectors and refused to serve in the military.
“We understand the authorities will now offer conscientious objectors alternative ways to meet national service requirements,” Blinken stated. “We want to see more progress like that.”