Burmese Buddhists attack Muslims and Christians. Indian Hindu zealots kill Muslims and Christians and trash their places of worship. In the Central African Republic, Muslims are driven from the country by Christians. The Middle East and parts of North Africa are aflame with sectarian violence, and religious minorities are the most vulnerable to persecution, even genocide. Atheists who reject all formal religions do not escape targeting in numerous places.
In May, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom singled out in its annual report more than two dozen nations as “countries of particular concern” and others nearing that level of documented abuse and discrimination. The bipartisan commission advises the president, the State Department and the Congress on issues of international religious freedom.
In a briefing for members of the Council on Foreign Relations on Aug. 9, Thomas Reese, the newly named chairman of the commission, a nine-member body of experts — three nominated by the president, three by the House of Representatives and three by the Senate — noted two disturbing trends from the 2016 report, based on information gathered in 2015. He pointed to the increasing abuses by independent groups, not governments, and vigilantes’ reckless charges of blasphemy to inflame violence.
Antony J. Blinken, US deputy secretary of state, introducing the department’s own International Religious Freedom Report, took up that theme in a briefing on Aug. 10. “Now, it used to be that our annual reports focused almost exclusively on the actions of states,” he said
“But we’ve also seen certain nonstate actors — including terrorist organizations like Daesh, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram — posing a major threat to religious freedom. There is, after all, no more egregious form of discrimination than separating out the followers of one religion from another — whether in a village, on a bus, in a classroom — with the intent of murdering or enslaving the members of a particular group.”
Reese, a Jesuit who is also the senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said in his briefing that intolerance and persecution can happen in political systems of all kinds, from dictatorships to democracies. He mentioned Burmese Buddhists attacking Rohingya Muslims, “stateless, homeless people” and the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi passing discriminatory laws on race and religion.
In Iran, he said, religious minorities, especially members of the Baha’i faith, Christian converts and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, are targeted by the majority Shia population and government. Despite promises of reform, President Hassan Rouhani, considered a reformer, “has presided over an increase in imprisonment of members of these minorities.”
In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Reese said, “not a single non-Muslim house of worship is allowed.”
Among nations that the State Department has yet to designate as a country of particular concern, Reese said, the Central African Republic should be on the list. The country descended into anarchy in 2013 after a Muslim militia coup and an extremely violent Christian backlash.
“While those Muslim and Christian militias since then have committed multiple atrocities, Christians far outnumber Muslims across the country, and Muslims were disproportionately victimized. Almost all of the Muslim population has been driven from the country.”
The current religious freedom report divides countries of most concern into two tiers. In Tier 1, “countries of particular concern” are Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The commission recommend that eight other countries meet that standard and should also be included in Tier 1: the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
In both Iraq and Syria, Reese said, “governments and nonstate actors alike have badly treated religious minorities.” In Egypt, he added that longstanding discriminatory laws are still in place and both Coptic Christians and atheists have been among those prosecuted and jailed. In Pakistan, the report says, “More people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy . . . than in any other country in the world.”
Tier 2 countries listed in the 2016 commission report are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.
In the case of democratic India, Reese said, “Christians, Muslims and Sikhs experience harassment, intimidation and violence largely at the hands of members of Hindu nationalist groups. Members of the ruling BJP party tacitly support these nonstate actors, and use religiously divisive language to get their base out to vote, and this kind of language inflames these groups against minorities. National and state governments also implement laws that restrict religious conversion from Hinduism and ban cow slaughter.”
When looking at all of these countries, one thing is obvious, Reese said. “In none of these countries are members of religious minorities safe and secure in the practice of their faith. Clearly, religious minorities are facing tremendous pressures across much of the world, from both governments and non-state actors. Why should we care? Well, we should care because the universal human right of religious freedom is being violated here — the right of all human beings to think as they please, believe or not believe in accordance with their conscience, and live out those beliefs in a nonviolent way, without fear or intimidation.
“But we should also, I think, care for another reason,” he added. “As we have seen dramatically in recent years, unchecked persecution of religious minorities has been associated with two of the worst humanitarian calamities of our time — an unprecedented refugee crisis, and genocide. A total of 65 million people worldwide are now internally displaced or have been forced out of their home countries — the largest number since World War II. This 65 million includes many who have been displaced because of their religious faith.”
This article was updated.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.