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Muslim women perform an evening prayer called 'tarawih' marking the first eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Associated Press/Photo by Tatan Syuflana
Muslim women perform an evening prayer called 'tarawih' marking the first eve of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia.

U.S. policy needs a religious liberty upgrade

Religious Liberty

WASHINGTON—The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) lists 26 nations on its 2014 report of countries that consistently violate religious liberties.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of USCIRF, an independent government commission that makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and congress. The 2014 report recommends the federal government update its policy to account for the current state of religious oppression.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” said Robert George, the commission's chairman, in a presentation of the report on Friday. Addressing why Americans should care about international religious freedom, he reminded the audience that not only is it first in our Bill of Rights, but it is “central to the dignity of human beings.”

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In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which requires the United States to take steps, including negotiations and sanctions, to improve religious liberty in countries committing ongoing violations of religious freedom, known as Countries of Particular Concern. This year, USCIRF recommended the State Department keep the eight Countries of Particular Concern currently on its list, including Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, and Uzbekistan, and add eight more, including Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria.

While Syria is a first-time recommendation, USCIRF is recommending Pakistan for the thirteenth year. The 2014 USCIRF report begins with the story of Shabbaz Bhatti, a Christian murdered by the Taliban for opposing the country’s blasphemy law and the death sentence sometimes given those who break it. USCIRF knows of 17 Pakistanis who await execution and 19 others who are serving life sentences for blasphemy.

USCIRF breaks its list into two categories, the second includes countries committing serious violations but not meriting the status of Country of Particular Concern. These are Afghanistan, Cuba, Russia, Turkey, and six others. Russia has been on the list since 2009, but its blasphemy law, enacted in July 2013, has further hindered freedom there.

The 15th anniversary report recommends an update to the International Religious Freedom Act. When the 1998 law passed, the biggest sources of threats against religious freedom were organized states like China. But William Galston, from the National Endowment for Democracy, noted the rise of oppression by non-state actors and civil wars, something the 1998 law did not account for.

George also recommended the executive branch expand its training on religious freedom. He explained how many people currently involved in foreign policy were taught that “with modernization comes secularization” and that religion would decrease in importance. “It’s fair to say that the facts on the ground have simply exploded that thesis,” he said.

George believes the state of religious freedom in the world has gotten worse over the past few years. He pointed to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe as a troubling development.

A January Pew study reports 76 percent of the world’s population lives in a country that highly restricts religion. But in the past 10 years, the State Department has only added Uzbekistan to its own list of countries requiring U.S action due to religious oppression. USCIRF recommends that Congress update the list each year to ensure its accuracy.

The United States cannot underestimate religious oppression, George emphasized: “Where religious freedom comes under pressure, where religious freedom rights begin to erode, you can bet that freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the other basic civil liberties, are quickly going to follow suit.”

Emily Scheie
Emily Scheie

Emily is a World Journalism Institute intern.

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