Prisoners of conscience remembered on International Religious Freedom Day

Prison Credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr CC BY NC 20 CNA 10 23 15 Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Leading religious freedom advocates called for the release of all "prisoners of conscience" worldwide on International Religious Freedom Day.

"For the sake of these and other prisoners of conscience we dare not be silent," wrote Fr. Thomas Reese and Daniel Mark, chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"We call for their immediate release, and we ask free people everywhere to urge Pakistan, Iran, and Eritrea to release every religious prisoner of conscience they hold," they stated.

Oct. 27 is International Religious Freedom Day. The day marks the 18th anniversary of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, a bill that helped solidify the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.

The law created an office within the State Department for international religious freedom. Additionally, it created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as "an independent, bipartisan federal body to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad and provide policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress."

"The rights to exercise one's freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are fundamental human rights and bedrock American principles," John Kirby, Assistant Secretary of State, said on Thursday. "We believe everyone deserves these freedoms."
However, "nearly two decades later, standing for religious freedom worldwide is as important as ever," Fr. Reese and Mark insisted, noting that billions of people worldwide "live under governments that perpetrate or tolerate serious abuses against freedom of religion or belief."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) defines a "prisoner of conscience" as someone "whom governments hold for reasons including those related to religion."

Common instances of this type of imprisonment include governments jailing dissident clerics and members of non-state sanctioned faiths, and convictions on "blasphemy laws," which in some cases don't carry a punishment for false accusations, and which are often used to persecute religious minorities.  

USCIRF's 2016 annual report noted that "the incarceration of prisoners of conscience" still "remains astonishingly widespread, occurring in country after country" like China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

For instance, 80 year-old Abdul Shakoor, an Ahmadi Muslim living in Pakistan, was "falsely accused of selling to an undercover police officer an Ahmadiyya commentary on the Qur'an and other publications," which is against the law in the country, Fr. Reese and Mark noted, adding that Shakoor received "concurrent sentences of five years and three years in prison" in January.  

There is also the case of the "Baha'i Seven," members of the Baha'i minority religious sect in Iran. Two of them were arrested in 2008 and "given 20-year sentences on false charges of espionage, propaganda against the 'Islamic Republic,' and establishment of an illegal administration."

"The plight of these prisoners highlights the abysmal status of religious freedom in the countries that persecute them," the op-ed insisted.

The U.S. can also do more for these prisoners, Fr. Reese and Mark insisted.

For instance, the State Department could "compile a comprehensive list of religious prisoners which would better enable State to advocate" for their liberation.

They added that the State Department should "follow USCIRF's long-standing recommendation to designate Pakistan a country of particular concern (CPC), marking it as one of the world's worst abusers of religious freedom."

The CPC list identifies countries where the worst persecutions of religious freedom take place, either at the hands of the state or by non-state actors in states that do not stop the abuses.

The list is used to pressure these countries to improve their human rights records. Currently, the State Department lists Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia as CPCs.

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USCIRF has recommended more countries be added to the list: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

"As we mark International Religious Freedom Day, let us stand for the freedom of all people to practice their religion alone and in groups, in public and in private, and let the United States and the international community hold governments accountable for the protection of this inalienable human right," Fr. Reese and Mark concluded.

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