The State Department has 90 days to designate “countries of particular concern” and to choose which countries to put on a special watch list. It can also designate non-state actors as “entities of particular concern.” The designations can have significant legal consequences
Pompeo cited the “good news” that Uzbekistan is no longer listed as a country of particular concern, for the first time in 13 years. Though the secretary said “much work remains,” the country has created a “religious freedom roadmap.” It has released about 1,500 religious prisoners and ended a blacklist that banned about 16,000 people from travel due to their religious affiliations.
Pompeo said the State Department looks forward to legal reforms on registration requirements so that more religious groups may worship freely and so that children may pray at mosques with their parents.
He credited President Donald Trump for leading a government-wide effort to secure the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey, saying he had been wrongly imprisoned for his faith.
The briefing also turned critical.
While Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted the Catholic woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy and spared her from execution after almost a decade in prison, over 40 people are serving a life sentence or face execution for the same charge. Pompeo called for these captives’ release and for the government to appoint an envoy to address various religious freedom concerns.
Pompeo opposed what he said was Iran’s “crackdown” on Baha’is, Christians and others.
Brownback expanded on this, saying Iranian religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, “face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs.”
“Their religious books are banned. They are denied access to education. Their cemeteries are desecrated. Blasphemy and proselytization of Muslims is punishable by death,” he said.
Pompeo criticized Russia’s categorization of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “terrorists,” the confiscation of their property, and the threats to their families. He spoke against the Burmese military’s violence against Rohingya Muslims, saying hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee or to live in overcrowded refugee camps.
China also drew criticism from Pompeo, who said, “The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding. The party demands that it alone be called God.”
Brownback added: “China has declared war on faith. We’ve seen increasing Chinese Government abuse of believers of nearly all faiths and from all parts of the mainland.”
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“They’ve increased their repression of Christians, shutting down churches and arresting adherents for their peaceful religious practices,” said Brownback, predicting this will affect China’s standing domestically and around the world.
China’s government has made “intense persecution” normal for many religious believers, including Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, Pompeo said.
The State Department added a special section to its report on China to discuss the country’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang autonomous region.
Brownback went into more detail on problems in other countries. He objected to Eritrean authorities’ continued house arrest of Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Antonios, detained since 2006, and the detention of hundreds of other “prisoners of conscience.” The Turkish government continues to keep closed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople’s Theological School of Halki, he said.
According to Brownback, religious leaders in Nicaragua report “constant surveillance, intimidation and threats.”
“The national police assault priests in full daylight, revealing the government’s contempt for any religious leaders they view as a threat to their authority,” he said.