Commentary / World

Religious liberty under siege around the world

by Doug Bandow

All religious faiths are victims of persecution somewhere. Over the last year “a horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion” in several nations, observed the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its latest annual report.

However, the fact that everyone is persecuted does not mean that everyone persecutes equally, or at all. Worst are authoritarian regimes and majority Muslim nations, which almost uniformly persecute.

The commission highlighted 27 countries for particularly vicious treatment of religious minorities. Nine states make the first tier, “Countries of Particular Concern,” in State Department parlance: Burma (also known as Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Burma. Despite recent reforms, noted the commission, “these steps have not yet improved conditions for religious freedom and related human rights in the country, nor spurred the Burmese government to curtail those perpetrating abuses.”

China. President Xi Jinping’s attempt to tighten the state’s control over all dissent has impacted believers, who “continue to face arrests, fines, denials of justice, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases, the closing or bulldozing of places of worship.”

Eritrea. Everyone suffers under a repressive, fanatical, and isolationist regime: “The government regularly tortures and beats political and religious prisoners; however, religious prisoners are sent to the harshest prisons and receive some of the cruelest punishments.”

Iran. Persecution has increased since the ascension of President Hassan Rouhani as president: “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.”

North Korea. Despite a handful of official churches, “Genuine freedom of religion or belief is non-existent. Individuals secretly engaging in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and sometimes execution.”

Saudi Arabia. Not one church, synagogue, or other house of worship is allowed to operate. The monarchy “continues to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery.”

Sudan. The small Christian community suffers from the government’s “policies of Islamization and Arabization.” Moreover, apostasy and conversion are punished.

Turkmenistan. In this former Soviet republic religious liberty remains highly restricted: “Police raids and harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continued.”

Uzbekistan. The most populous Central Asian state is determined “to enforce a highly restrictive religion law and to impose severe restrictions on all independent religious activity.”

The USCIRF also recommended that eight nations join the forgoing as CPCs: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Central African Republic. CAR has been rent by violence between antagonistic militias. For much of last year it “was engulfed in a religious conflict after a 2013 coup resulted in rampant lawlessness and the complete collapse of government control.”

Egypt. Although President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has attempted to use Coptic Christians for his political advantage, “the Egyptian government has not adequately protected religious minorities” from discrimination, prosecution, and violence.

Iraq. The situation greatly deteriorated last year. While the Islamic State was the worst perpetrator, “the Iraqi government also contributed to the deterioration in religious freedom conditions.”

Nigeria. An estimated 18,000 have died in sectarian violence since 1999. Today the greatest threat to religious liberty is the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, which attacks Christians and moderate Muslims.

Pakistan. This U.S. ally tolerates “chronic sectarian violence” against religious minorities and the promiscuous misuse of the infamous “blasphemy” law.

Syria. Bashar Assad’s Syria became a haven for Christians after the Iraq invasion. Unfortunately, members of most religions now suffer at the hands of one faction or another in the multi-sided civil war.

Tajikistan. The government “suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control, particularly the activities of Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Vietnam. Despite a number of economic reforms, this communist state “continues to control all religious activities through law and administrative oversight, restrict severely independent religious practice, and repress individuals and religious groups it view as challenging its authority.”

Further, the commission cited 10 so-called tier 2 nations, where violations are severe, but a notch below those of the CPCs: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey. Plenty of other nations also mistreat people of faith.

Religious liberty is the first freedom, the bedrock liberty of conscience upon which civil and political freedoms rest. With religious liberty under siege around the world, people of goodwill should stand for the rights of believers everywhere.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.