Protecting religious freedom: A U.S. priority

Advancing religious freedom around the world is a high priority for the United States — and a challenge. In many countries people are persecuted and imprisoned for their religious beliefs.

That’s what makes the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report, which monitors religious freedom, so significant.

“Given our own great freedoms, it’s a distinctly American responsibility to stand up for faith in every nation’s public square,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said June 21 upon the 2018 report’s release.

The good news

Pope Francis, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (© Kamran Jebreili/AP Images)
The United Arab Emirates welcomed Pope Francis in early 2019, the first visit of a pope to the Arabian Peninsula. (© Kamran Jebreili/AP Images)

The International Religious Freedom Report tracks abuses around the world, but also cites positive developments, such as the following in 2018:

  • Uzbekistan passed a religious freedom “road map” that loosened restrictions and freed religious prisoners.
  • The Pakistan Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian, of blasphemy charges. She had spent eight years on death row.
  • Turkey, at the urging of President Trump, released Pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned for his faith.

“We welcome all these glimmers of progress, but demand much more,” Pompeo said.

A chilling array of abuses

China is a country where those who practice religion generally aren’t safe. “The government’s intense persecution of people of many faiths — Falun Gong practitioners, Christians and Tibetan Buddhists among them — is the norm,” Pompeo said.

China continues to hold as many as 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslims in Xinjiang against their will in camps. In these camps, individuals are forced to renounce their ethnic identities, religious beliefs and cultural practices.

The secretary noted that there is a special section in this year’s report documenting the abuses in Xinjiang.

Woman wearing black head covering and coat (© Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Images)
Uyghurs in Istanbul protest Chinese government abuses against Uyghur Muslims in their homeland, China’s Xinjiang province. (© Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Images)

In Iran, hundreds of Gonabadi Sufis were arrested in 2018. Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and other members of minority religious groups also are victims of abuse in the country.

Rohingya Muslims continue to face violence at the hands of the Burmese military.

In Afghanistan, non-Muslims and Sunni Muslims who do not agree with extremist interpretations of Islam have been killed by Taliban and Islamic State-related groups.

“As in previous years, our report exposes a chilling array of abuses committed by oppressive regimes, violent extremist groups and individual citizens,” Pompeo said.

The State Department submits the report annually in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

2019 religious freedom ministerial

The report rollout also provided information for the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in mid-July. Pompeo called the first meeting “a stunning show of unity — people of all faiths standing up for the most basic of all human rights.”

Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said, “We believe there is no more important a time for the United States to promote religious freedom than now.”

A version of this article was previously published on June 24, 2019.