State Department religious freedom report focuses on threats by ISIS

Displaced Iraqis rest amid rubble after fleeing fighting between Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service forces and Islamic State militants May 15 in Mosul. (CNS photo/Danish Siddiqui, Reuters)Displaced Iraqis rest amid rubble after fleeing fighting between Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service forces and Islamic State militants May 15 in Mosul. (CNS photo/Danish Siddiqui, Reuters)

With more than 80 percent of the world’s population living in places with restrictions on religion, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that international religious freedom remains “a human rights priority for the Trump administration,” saying “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal.”

“Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent,” he said.


Mr. Tillerson’s comments came as the State Department released theInternational Religious Freedom Report for 2016, which tracks religious freedom in 199 countries and territories for the U.S. Congress. The report is the result of an annual examination of religious freedom, a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy.

The secretary of state offered several “egregious and troubling examples” of religious freedom violations, calling out U.S. adversaries such as Iran and ISIS along with allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.


“No one should have to live in fear or worship in secret or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs,” Mr. Tillerson said.

The 2016 report includes a significantly truncated executive summary compared with reports from previous years, focusing almost exclusively on atrocities committed by the terrorist group ISIS. The State Department accuses ISIS of targeting “members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death.”

“ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities,” the report says. “The protection of these groups—and others who are targets of violent extremism—remains a human rights priority for the Trump Administration.”


Last year, theObama administration declared that ISIS was committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities. According to the nonpartisan RAND Corporation, ISIS has lost most of its territory and appears to be headed for defeat in both Syria and Iraq. But the group said ISIS will continue to promote terror in the Middle East and other regions through its savvy use of online media.

The latest State Department report offers a profile for each country including laws pertaining to religious freedom, areas of concern and activities by State Department personnel to promote religious freedom.

InRussia, for example, the report notes, “Embassy officers raised consular cases with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs involving the discriminatory enforcement of the law against U.S. citizens who had engaged in religious activity.”

A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, was criticized in the report for a “pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims.”

“Embassy and consulate officials at all levels continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs,” the report states.

When it comes to predominantly Catholic countries, the report focuses on how welcoming those countries are to outsiders, especially migrants of different faiths.

Regarding Italy, for example, where seven in 10 residents are Catholic, the report calls attention to incidents of discrimination against Jews and Muslims, including a time when a “bishop told two priests not to allow Muslim refugees to pray in their churches.”

In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Tillerson drew a link between restrictions on religious freedom and other human rights abuses.

“Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root,” he said. “We cannot ignore these conditions.

One example is North Korea, with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations. The report notes that the United Nations has found “an almost complete denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and, in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity.”

Last month the White House announced that it had chosenGov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a social conservative and Roman Catholic, to serve as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Mr. Tillerson said Tuesday that the Trump administration hopes Mr. Brownback’s nomination is confirmed quickly by the U.S. Senate.

The Trump administration has pledged repeatedly that it will fight for international religious freedom, focusing especially on the rights of persecuted Christian communities.

Speaking toa group of Catholics in June, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Christianity faces unprecedented threats in the land where it was given birth and an exodus unrivaled since the days of Moses.”

Mr. Pence said the Trump administration “is fully committed to bringing relief and comfort to believers in that ancient land” and considers the terrorist group ISIS to be guilty of genocide.

“Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of this administration,” he said, tying the issue to what he called “the cancer of terrorism”—which he promised the Trump administration would “drive from the face of the earth.”

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