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Tillerson: Religious Persecution Far Too Prevalent

Religious freedom restrictions lead to “instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism,” the U.S. State Department emphasized in its annual International Religious Freedom Report, released Tuesday, Aug. 15.

“Conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remain far too prevalent,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in remarks announcing the release of the report. “Almost 80 percent of the global population lives with restrictions on, or hostilities to limit, their freedom of religion.”

He added, “Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a great opportunity to take root. … No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs.”

Tillerson gave significant attention to ISIS, stating that the group is “clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled.”

The State Department first declared ISIS actions to be genocide in March 2016.

Of the 199 nations included in the report, Tillerson focused his remarks on “a few of the more egregious and troubling examples” of religious freedom restrictions in Bahrain, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey.

Persecution of Shia Muslims was the focus of the executive summary on Bahrain, an island nation located off the west coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf.

While Islam is the official state religion, the Sunni-led government has “continued to question, detain and arrest Shia clerics, community members and opposition politicians.”

The report on China raised concerns about a vague and undefined statement in the constitution regarding “normal religious activities” being protected.

Such ambiguity has resulted in government abuse, harassment and detainment “of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.”

Concerns in the executive summary on Iran centered on the “in conformity with Islamic criteria” limitation on human rights’ protections as well as the constitution’s restriction on proselytism and its blasphemy laws allowing for imprisonment upon conviction.

Blasphemy laws were also a key focus in the report on Pakistan, as the number of arrests for blasphemy jumped from three (2015) to 18 (2016) – many of which involved Ahmadiyya Muslims.

Lack of religious freedom protections for non-Sunni Muslims was emphasized in the executive summary on Saudi Arabia, highlighting frequent imprisonment for “apostasy, blasphemy [and] violating Islamic values and moral standards” and noting “a [continued] pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims.”

The report on Sudan focused on “eyewitness reports of the government arresting, detaining or intimidating Christian clergy and church members as well as an imam, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.”

While Turkey’s constitution technically protects religious freedom for all, the executive summary explained that “religious matters are coordinated and governed by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), whose mandate is to enable the practice of and promote Sunni Islam.”

The full State Department report is available here.

An EthicsDaily.com news brief on last year’s report is available here.

A recent news brief on global blasphemy laws from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is available here.