Global report warns of 'dire' religious freedom plight

Dr Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project Dec 6 2012 Credit Michelle Bauman CNA CNA US Catholic News 12 6 12 Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project Dec 6, 2012. / Michelle Bauman/CNA.

A recent report on international religious liberty cautioned that severe threats to freedom of religion exist in diverse communities through the world and should be discouraged through actions by the U.S. government.

"The Annual Report ultimately is about people and how their governments treat them," said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the commission that released the report.

"Religious freedom is both a pivotal human right under international law and a key factor that helps determine whether a nation experiences stability or chaos," she explained.

The U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom gathers information throughout the year by meeting with government officials, citizens, analysts and non-governmental organizations across the globe in order to assess the state of international religious liberty. The independent, bipartisan group then advises the president, U.S. Congress and State Department on recommended actions to be taken.

Issued each year, the commission's report marks "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), which are defined as "countries whose governments have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief." The State Department has the opportunity to officially label CPCs and decide whether to impose sanctions or other penalties on each country.

The 2013 document recommended 15 countries to be designated as CPCs: Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While all of these countries were also listed as serious offenders in last year's report, the State Department has only chosen to designate eight of them as CPCs.

Examples of offenses in these nations include sectarian violence against minority Christians and Muslims in Burma, repression of non-state religious groups in China, and Iran's imprisonment of Christians, including U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, on account of their faith.

The commission's report also lists a number of "Tier 2" nations whose violations of religious liberty are serious and troubling but do not meet all the criteria of abuses against religious freedom to be recommended as a CPC. This designation replaces a previous "Watch List" category in earlier annual reports.

Countries placed in the second tier in the 2013 report are: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

The document also highlights the status of religious liberty in other countries that do not fall into either of the two tiers. These nations and regions include: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and the entirety of Western Europe.

According to Lantos Swett, the commission's annual report is critical because effective foreign policy "recognizes the critical role religious freedom plays in each of these nations." In addition, many of these countries "top the U.S. foreign policy agenda, and religion is a core component in their makeup."

Some signs of hope were seen across the globe. The report found that Turkey is "moving in a positive direction with regard to religious freedom." Due to the reforms it has enacted, the nation was removed from the recommended list of "countries of particular concern," although its status is still being monitored by the commission.

Overall, however, the status of global religious freedom is "increasingly dire," said Lantos Swett.

She pointed to factors contributing to the instability, which "include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments."  

"Extremists target religious minorities and dissenters from majority religious communities for violence, including physical assaults and even murder," she added. "Authoritarian governments also repress religious freedom through intricate webs of discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements and draconian edicts."

Other broad concerns raised in the report include constitutional changes that fail to adequately protect religious liberty, anti-blasphemy laws, restrictions of religious freedom in former Communist countries, imprisonment of conscientious objectors and religious freedom problems in non-governmental organizations.

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Lantos Swett called for swift action by the federal government to acknowledge and address severe offenders of religious liberty, as well as the forces that add to instability.

"We recommend that the White House adopt a whole-of-government strategy to guide U.S. religious freedom promotion and that Secretary of State Kerry promptly designate CPCs, before currently designated actions expire later this year," she said.

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