A distressing map of religious freedom around the world

May 3, 2013

Click to enlarge.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has issued a report highlighting those it calls the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. Among them are many Asian and Middle Eastern governments, although some Western European countries are also included.

The report from the bipartisan advisory body divides violators into three categories. Fifteen "tier 1" nations, marked red on the above map, have committed "particularly severe" violations that are "systemic, ongoing and egregious." That includes all the countries you'd expect, as well as a few worsening problem areas, such as Egypt and Nigeria. The "tier 2" countries are said to be "on the threshold" of meeting tier 1 status and include states that might have serious problems but, often, are at least making an effort to address them. A small third category of nations under "monitoring" for violations includes, among other states, some in Western Europe.

The report isn't just about documenting abuses: The tier 1 countries can be officially designated as "countries of particular concern" by the U.S. State Department, at which point the president is legally required to follow up with some sort of action, recommended by the report. It might suggest, for example, engaging with Burmese civil society groups to promote tolerance or working with Pakistani lawmakers to improve legislation.

As the report itself notes, though, "in practice, the flexibility provided in IRFA has been underutilized. Generally, no new Presidential actions pursuant to CPC designations have been levied, with the State Department instead relying on pre-existing sanctions." In other words, the red countries are usually already under some kind of trade restriction or sanction, which the president can use to say that he's already meeting the commission's requirements. In some cases, the president uses a waiver to avoid punishing countries that are important to U.S. foreign policy, such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The tier 1 countries are typically cited for state-sponsored or state-enforced religious discrimination, such as China's suppression of Tibetan Buddhists or Iran's "prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accuse." In the case of some countries, such as Egypt, the sins were those of omission: "In many cases, the government failed or was slow to protect religious minorities from violence. This violence and the failure to convict those responsible continued to foster a climate of impunity."

The report explains, in excruciating detail, the larger trends and worst incidents that motivated its categorizations. In Burma, for example, it finds,  "In the past year, over 1,000 Rohingya [Muslims] have been killed, their villages and religious structures destroyed, and women raped during attacks." It also notes: "It is almost impossible for Muslims to obtain building permits for either mosques or schools and unlicensed venues are regularly closed or destroyed. The government has, in recent years, ordered the destructions of mosques, religious centers, and schools."

Tier 2 countries are cited for less systemic but still serious violations, or for systemic refusals to improve religious freedoms. Russia, for example, is cited for exploiting "anti-extremism" laws to restrict groups, such as Jehovah's Witness and some Muslim groups, that do not have any record of advocating or using violence. The report praises India for curtailing large-scale communal violence against religious minorities, but chides Indian officials for refusing to further investigate past incidents.

The third category of countries being "monitored" also lists, somewhat vaguely, "Western Europe." The section explaining its inclusion, though, overwhelmingly focuses on three countries: France, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which are cited for "increasing restrictions on, and efforts to restrict, various forms of religious expression." In practice, this often seems to mean the religious expression of Muslims. Laws against traditional Muslim clothing or circumcision, for example, or over-broad hate speech laws are "creating a growing atmosphere of intimidation against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe. These restrictions also seriously limit social integration and educational and employment opportunities for the individuals affected."

The report also discusses a trend in Japan it calls "kidnapping and forced religious de-conversion." Although Japan is not included in any of the watch-list categories, and this section praises the Japanese government in general for its religious freedom, the trend is about as alarming as its name implies:

Over the past several decades, thousands of individuals belonging to the Unification Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other new religious movements (NRMs) have been kidnapped by their families in an effort to force them to renounce their chosen beliefs. In some extreme cases, as with Unification Church member Toro Goto, individuals were confined against their will for a decade or more. Those abducted describe psychological harassment and physical abuse by both family members and “professional deprogrammers.” Police and judicial authorities have neither investigated nor indicted those responsible for these acts, often citing lack of evidence.

Some readers, particularly those from countries highlighted in the map above, may wonder why the report includes nothing on the United States, which has seen some local and state-level movements to expel or suppress mosques or other forms of public worship by Muslims. And it's a fair question. Alas, the commission exists to make recommendations to the U.S. State Department, which of course does not have oversight over the United States. Still, fairly or not, U.S. representatives who seek to promote religious freedom abroad risk having their advice deflected because some Tennessee officials tried to block construction of a mosque. If nothing else, it's a reminder that religious freedom is an ongoing process as well as a state of being.

Update: Irony of ironies, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was itself accused of bias in 2010. As the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein reported at the time:

Some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say the agency charged with advising the president and Congress is rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background. In particular, they say an anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission's work-- a charge denied by its chairman, Leonard Leo.

"I don't know of any other organization who defends as many Muslims in the world as we do," said Leo, who was appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Nevertheless, the commission was hit this fall with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, who alleges that her contract was canceled because of her Muslim faith and her affiliation with a Muslim advocacy group.

Boorstein's story also notes, "From the start, critics say, the commission has disproportionately focused its efforts on the persecution of Christians, while too often ignoring other religious communities and downplaying their claims of persecution."

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