Commentary: Make religious freedom for all a top priority
  • Mon, 01/23/2017 - 17:48

By Thomas J. Reese and Daniel Mark
Updated: JANUARY 23, 2017 — 3:01 AM EST

As our nation commemorated National Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, marking Virginia's adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, we recalled the billions of people who live in countries where this fundamental right is violated. From onerous religious registration requirements to imprisonment, torture, and mass murder, religious freedom abuses betray the universal values that most nations endorsed in documents such as Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A single, undeniable fact spotlights these dismal conditions:

Nearly every government and entity - from China to ISIS - that poses a major foreign policy challenge to the United States also commits monumental religious freedom abuses.

How should the Trump administration respond? We urge a firm and resolute stand for this liberty.

The abuses of such governments and entities are long-standing and notorious.

For example, China and North Korea are secular tyrannies that consider religious beliefs potential competitors of Communist state ideology.

Chinese officials have torn down churches and crosses, repressed Tibetan Buddhists, cracked down on Uighur Muslims, tortured and sought to "re-educate" the Falun Gong, and jailed and harvested organs from prisoners.

Religious freedom is nonexistent in North Korea. Individuals secretly engaging in religious activity are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution. The government often inflicts added punishment by sentencing their entire families to decades in brutal slave labor camps.

In Russia, the Kremlin favors Russia's majority religious organization, the Russian Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate, as a bulwark of state power, while discriminating against religious minority communities. Peaceful religious practitioners often are jailed or fined after being charged with crimes of extremism or terrorism.

Iran is a religious tyranny run by leaders who elevate their own interpretations of Sh'ia Islam above all other beliefs, religious or secular. Authorities have detained, tortured, and even executed Iranians, from Shi'a, Sunni, and Sufi Muslim dissenters to Baha'is and Christians.

Pakistan's government strictly enforces its blasphemy law, with more prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment based on blasphemy convictions than anywhere in the world. Pakistan's religious minorities suffer in at least four distinct ways. They bear the brunt of government enforcement of such religiously repressive laws; extremists assault them as perceived transgressors of such statutes; the government fails to protect them against such attacks; and it frequently fails to bring perpetrators to justice, even when the accusations are false.

Syria is another obvious challenge. A civil war triggered by the Assad regime's failure to respect human rights devolved into a sectarian conflict which helped fuel the rise of ISIS and a massive refugee crisis.

ISIS's depredations as a nonstate actor are notorious, including committing genocide through summary executions, rape, sexual enslavement, abduction of children, destruction of houses of worship, and forced conversions of Yazidis, Christians, Shi'a Muslims, and other religious minorities.

Every one of these nations and entities, representing the most critical foreign policy challenges the Trump administration will likely face, is a religious freedom abuser.

What should the new administration do?

Follow the lead of the past three administrations and designate China, North Korea, and Iran as "countries of particular concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act, marking them as among the world's worst religious freedom violators and subject to sanctions.

Take the lead and designate Pakistan and Syria as CPCs as well.

Designate ISIS as an "entity of particular concern," a new category from Congress which holds violent religious extremist groups, including terrorist organizations, as responsible as recognized governments for religious persecution.

Swiftly nominate a well-qualified ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and make religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, a top priority.

As we remember National Religious Freedom Day and celebrate our own liberty, let us also stand for this pivotal right for others.

Father Thomas J. Reese, Society of Jesus, ( treesesj@ncronline.org) is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (www.uscirf.gov).

Daniel Mark ( dmark@uscirf.gov) serves as vice chairman and is an assistant professor of political science and Navy ROTC battalion professor at Villanova University.

Categories: