A steady increase in the percentage of people who live in countries that have serious restrictions on religious freedom and the escalation of violence in the name of religion perpetrated by non-state actors are the major trends explored in the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2014. During a press briefing after the report’s release on Oct. 14, David N. Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, called the latter trend “deeply troubling,” a new phenomenon “that has really escalated in the last 18 months.” The report, considered the most comprehensive accounting of religious freedom violations worldwide, studied nearly 200 countries and territories.
Joining Saperstein at its release was Secretary of State John Kerry, who likewise commented on the appearance of non-state actors as emerging protagonists in religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, replacing older forms of such intolerance that had “emanated from states.”
These non-state actors, Kerry said, “are now the principal persecutors and preventers of religious tolerance and practice. Most prominent, and most harmful, obviously, has been the rise of international terrorist groups such as Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram. And all have been guilty of vicious acts of unprovoked violence.” Kerry used daesh, a term with derogatory undertones often employed by government officials in the region, Kurds and many Arabs to refer to Islamic State militants (otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL).
“Under their control,” Kerry said, “captives have been given a choice between conversion or slavery or death. Children have been among the victims, and also among those forced to witness or participate in executions—sometimes even of their own family members. Entire populations of religious minority groups have been targeted for killing. Terrified young girls have been separated out by religion and sold into slavery.
“The repugnance of these acts,” he said, “is only multiplied when the perpetrators seek to justify themselves by pointing a finger at God and claiming somehow that God licensed these acts. We are, and we will continue, to oppose these groups with far more than words of condemnation that are contained in this report.”
Kerry added that the United States was also ready to continue to help the survivors.
“In the Middle East, and in Africa,” he said, “we are assisting local partners in responding to the needs—both physical and psychological—of women and girls who have escaped or been released after having been held captive by terrorist groups. Each victim, each nightmare, each wound is another reason to urgently address the root causes of violent extremism.”
The report singled out non-state actors like Boko Haram and Daesh for the specific incidents of brutality they have become notorious for, but the ineffective response of state offices to respond effectively to such groups was also deplored. According to the report, “In the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and throughout Asia, a range of non-state actors including terrorist organizations, have set their sights on destroying religious diversity. … In these regions, religious intolerance and hostility, often combined with political, economic and ethnic grievances, frequently led to violence. Governments stood by, either unwilling or unable to act in response to the resulting death, injuries and displacement.”
The religious freedom report did not confine itself to the extreme instances of religious persecution which continue to emerge from conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Africa. The report raised concerns over a surge of anti-Semitisim in Europe last year and noted “continued deficiencies in the respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom” in Burma. They include “societal violence against religious minorities, including Rohingya and other Muslims and Christians, the destruction of religious buildings in areas of conflict, policies prohibiting or impeding Muslim land ownership and property occupation in some areas, and the proposed ‘Protection of Religious and Race Laws’ which, if enacted, could be enforced in a manner that would significantly undermine religious freedom.”
It also noted a strong backlash against Christians in China, and during the press briefing Saperstein personally criticized blasphemy and apostasy laws in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan.
“The United States uniformly opposes such laws, which are used to oppress those whose religious beliefs happen to offend the majority,” Saperstein said. “Such laws are inconsistent with international human rights and fundamental freedoms, and we will continue to call for their universal repeal.”
He also pointed to governments that abuse their citizens “for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community.”
“We see this dramatized by the plight of countless numbers of prisoners of conscience,” he said, and spoke of his travels to Vietnam, where he “saw firsthand how religious groups are forced to undergo onerous and arbitrary registration process to legally operate.”
Saperstein also deplored recent actions by Chinese, Russian and other state authorities to screen a clampdown on religious communities behind “war on terror” rationales. “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,” he said. “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. Chinese officials have increased controls on Uighur Muslims’ peaceful religious expression and practice, including instances of banning beards and headscarves.”
“The message at the heart of this report is that countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled,” said Secretary Kerry. “And this is not a hopeful theory; this is a proven reality. No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs…. The world has learned through very hard experience that religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all; while religious discrimination is often the source of conflicts that endanger all.”
Saperstein added that during his August visit to China, “I found that despite widespread, continuing government abuses and restriction, many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.
“We’ve urged the Chinese Government to use that as a model of what can work nationwide. But far more often restrictive policies still stifled religious life, preventing Chinese people from experiencing such benefits.”
A widespread crackdown on human rights lawyers in China has included attorneys seeking to work within China’s legal system to enhance religious freedom, Saperstein complained, including Zhang Kai, “a peaceful, respected, Christian human rights lawyer who was detained just prior to a meeting with me and whose whereabouts remain unknown.”
Kerry noted that no continent, no nation was exempt from religious bigotry, “sadly, even including our own…. It may be expressed through anti-Semitism or prejudice against Muslims; through the persecution of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others; or it may come in the guise of attacks against religion itself, as we saw so tragically in Oregon at the beginning of this month.
“We all have a responsibility,” Kerry said, “to affirm our faith in the principles of religious freedom that the world community has endorsed so many times and that have helped to uplift America and define our country since the 17th century, when Roger Williams issued his call for soul liberty, and when, some years later, Seneca chief Red Jacket told a missionary delegation from Boston, ‘Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion. We only want to enjoy our own.’
“That’s the fundamental principle of tolerance that guides us,” the secretary said, “and it is a value worth fighting for.”