Bigotry, abuse, incarceration worldwide indicates 'serious and sustained assault' against religious liberty

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Reuters)South Korea-born Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim stands during his trial at a North Korean court in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang December 16, 2015. North Korea's highest court has sentenced the South Korea-born Canadian pastor to hard labor for life for subversion, China's official news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday. Hyeon has been held by North Korea since February. He had appeared on North Korean state media earlier this year confessing to "crimes" against the state.

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – Religious freedom is imperiled now as never before, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its annual report May 2.

The report, which monitors abuses of religious rights and encourages foreign governments to adopt policies favorable to religious liberty, recommends  nine countries be re-designated as "countries of particular concern" or "CPCs" by the U.S. State Department after continued and egregious violations of the rights of religious minorities there.

Those countries include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. There is also sufficient evidence to warrant the CPC designation for eight other countries, including the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe, and to the other abuses detailed in this report, there was no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide.
- USCIRF Annual Report 2016

A second tier of countries was also recommended to receive the CPC designation, but being "Tier 2" likely means the State Department will not recognize them as particularly troublesome because of their long-term or burgeoning political relationship with the U.S. For example, Turkey, India and Cuba are unlikely to receive the designation since Turkey and India are major U.S. allies, serving as counterbalances to Russia and China, and since the Obama administration is seeking detente with Cuba.

Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Russia are designated as "Tier 2" countries, as well.

"By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission's last Annual Report in 2015. From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe, and to the other abuses detailed in this report, there was no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide," the report claims.

"The incarceration of prisoners of conscience – people whom governments hold for reasons including those related to religion – remains astonishingly widespread, occurring in country after country, and underscores the impact of the laws and policies that led to their imprisonment."

The 276-page report then highlights specific countries where religious abuses are occurring.

In North Korea, the communist regime of Kim Jong-Un imprisons thousands of religious believers, the report claims, even though it is nearly impossible to obtain information about the inner workings of the closed society. USCIRF notes in its report that the government controls "all political and religious expression" and punishes those who do not follow the regime. The regime also demands allegiance to its own religion, Juche, which emphasizes devotion to the Kim family and "self-reliance."

"Religious freedom is non-existent. Individuals secretly engaging in religious activities are subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and execution. North Koreans suspected of contacts with South Koreans or foreign missionaries or who are caught possessing Bibles have been executed," the report claims.

Most of the countries mentioned as CPCs are countries where Islam is the predominant religion and where religious liberty has never been part of political life. That includes countries in both the Middle East and Asia. Pakistan, which neighbors both Afghanistan and India, for example, is listed as a CPC.

"More people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world," the report claims. "Aggressive enforcement of these [blasphemy] laws emboldens the Pakistani Taliban and individual vigilantes, triggering horrific violence against religious communities and individuals perceived as transgressors, most recently Christians and Muslim bystanders on Easter Sunday 2016 in Lahore."

China also receives significant attention in the report because the country recently tore down crosses on Christian churches, has imprisoned house church leaders and Uighur Muslims, and even holds prisoners is "'black jails' or brainwashing centers, with credible reports of torture, sexual violence, psychiatric experimentation and organ harvesting.

"Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state's supremacy and maintenance of a 'socialist society.' Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down," the report notes.

The report also sheds light on the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially France, and also criticizes the sectarian strife in Iraq and Syria, where much of the persecution of religious minorities is carried out by non-state actors such as the Islamic State. However, Iraq is also criticized for its government's indifference to Shiite militias who inflict human rights abuses on Sunni Muslims.

Russia is criticized in the report for its approach to dealing with those who attack the Russian Orthodox Church on social media and its investigation of those who align with Jehovah's Witnesses. Both are normally charged and imprisoned.

The report provides names of Muslim prisoners in Russia, but it is unclear why those associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamic group that seeks to establish a global caliphate like ISIS, are listed as prisoners of conscience rather than terrorists. Hizb ut-Tahrir has been banned in Russia for its radical Islamist ideology. The USCIRF claims it is "non-violent."