US Committee hearing: The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom

On 27 October the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing under the heading The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom.

View the hearing

The Honorable David N. Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom U.S. Department of State gave evidence. Here are some key extracts:

During my tenure as Ambassador at Large, I’ve noticed certain enduring truths. In many countries, religious freedom flourishes. People are free to choose their faith, change their faith, speak about their faith to others, teach their faith to their children, dissent from religion, build places of worship, and worship alone or in fellowship with others.

In such societies, denominations and faith groups organize as they see fit. Interfaith cooperation flourishes. Religious communities contribute significantly to the social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations.

Yet in far too many countries people face daunting, alarming, and growing challenges because of their beliefs. In countries with proud traditions of multi-faith cooperation where positive coexistence was once the norm, we have witnessed growing numbers of religious minorities being driven out of their historic homelands. And in too many countries, prisoners of conscience suffer cruel punishment for their religious beliefs and practices.

The abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction are the fastest growing challenge to religious freedom worldwide.

In Iraq and Syria, ISIL has sought to eliminate anyone assessed as deviating from its own violent and destructive interpretation of Islam. The group has displaced many hundreds of thousands from their homes based solely on their religion or opposition to ISIL’s rule, be they Sunni or Shia, Christian or Yezidi, or any one of the many other ethno-religious groups for whom Iraq and Syria are home—Turkmen, Sabean Mandaean, Kaka’is, Shabak, and others.

We continue to see the negative impact of blasphemy and apostasy laws in countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan, as well as the impact from laws that purport to protect religious sentiments from offense.

Such laws have been used in some countries as a pretext to justify violence in the name of religion, which can lead to false claims of blasphemy and create an atmosphere of impunity for those resorting to violence. The United States uniformly opposes blasphemy and apostasy laws, which are frequently used to oppress those whose religious beliefs happen to differ from the majority. Such laws are inconsistent with international human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to call for their universal repeal.

Repressive governments routinely subject their citizens to violence, detention, discrimination, and undue surveillance, for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community.

Many governments have also used the guise of confronting terrorism or violent extremism to justify repression of religious groups’ nonviolent religious activities, or imposition of broad restrictions on religious life. Russia continues to use vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws to justify arrests, raids on homes and places of worship, and the confiscation or banning of religious literature. The Government of Tajikistan bans people under age of 18 from participating in any public religious activities, supposedly on the ground that exposure to religion will lead youths to violence, and supports a 2004 religious decision prohibiting Hanafi Sunni women’s worship in mosques. Chinese officials have increased controls on Uighur Muslims’ peaceful religious expression and practice, including reported instances of banning beards and headscarves. Tibetan Buddhists faced government interference in the selection of reincarnate lamas, and monasteries faced increased government management and interference as part of measures to “combat separatism.”

Robert P. George, Ph.D., Chairman, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom [extracts]:

Why Religious Freedom Matters

Freedom of religion or belief is a broad, inclusive right that embraces the full range of thought, belief, and behaviour. It means the right of all human beings to think as they please, believe or not believe as their conscience leads, and live out their beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear. No government, group, or individual has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or restrain them from answering its call. Religious freedom applies to the holders of all religious beliefs and extends to those who reject religious beliefs altogether, and was overwhelmingly adopted in 1948 in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in subsequent international agreements.

A number of studies also have shown that, in countries that honour and protect this right, religious freedom generally is associated with vibrant political democracy, rising economic and social well-being, and diminished tension and violence. In contrast, nations that trample on religious freedom are more likely to be mired in poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical extremism.

Three Country Examples: Vietnam, Pakistan and Tajikistan

Religious freedom remains under serious assault across much of the world, including in countries that top the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The tools IRFA provides need to be used, and used more effectively. The three countries highlighted below – Vietnam, Pakistan, and Tajikistan – underscore both how IRFA and the CPC designation can promote positive change and how not using those tools can lead to missed opportunities.

A USCIRF delegation visited Vietnam in August 2015 to assess religious freedom conditions in that country. To be sure, religious freedom in Vietnam today is notably improved from the postwar era. For example, government-sanctioned religious communities have greater space in which to practice their faiths, and as the government noted during USCIRF’s visit, the country is religiously diverse and experiences few inter-religious conflicts.

Yet, despite these steps forward, Vietnam still falls short of meeting international religious freedom standards. The Vietnamese government controls nearly all religious activities, restricts independent religious practice, and represses individuals and groups it views as challenging its authority, including independent Buddhists, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Protestants. Religious organizations and congregations must register in order to be considered legal. Those who choose to maintain their independence from state-sanctioned religious entities, or those whose registration applications are denied, are vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, detention, and imprisonment. Individuals remain imprisoned for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.

Since 2002, USCIRF has recommended CPC designation for Pakistan due to the government’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom and its toleration of such violations by the Taliban and other non-state actors. The State Department never has designated Pakistan as a CPC, despite its own IRF Reports, USCIRF’s Annual Report and ongovernmental  reports, all of which document severe religious freedom violations against all Pakistanis, including Sunni, Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, as well as Christians and Hindus. USCIRF has called Pakistan the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries the U.S. government has not currently designated as CPCs.

The State Department never has designated Tajikistan as a CPC despite its “systematic, ongoing and egregious” violations of freedom of religion or belief. The lack of this designation is significant, particularly after the State Department designated its neighbors, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as CPCs. The laws and policies of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan similarly restrict religious freedom. The government of Tajikistan suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control, particularly the activities of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned since 2007. Numerous laws that severely restrict religious freedom have been adopted since 2009. The government also imprisons individuals on unproven criminal allegations linked to Islamic religious activity and affiliation.