Last week, the State Department released its report assessing religious freedom around the world during 2016.
Many of the usual suspects we think of when addressing religious freedom violations overseas were covered by the report, and continue to reveal their religious freedom violations:
- Iran continues to imprison people for “insulting the prophet” and “enmity against God” – both of which can merit the death penalty.
- Within Syria, ISIS “killed dozens through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings of men, women, and children on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.” Within Iraq, the group continued to “commit individual and mass killings, and to engage in rape, kidnapping, random detentions and mass abductions, torture, abduction and forced conversion of non-Muslim male children, and the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities.”
- Saudi Arabia still outlaws all religions except Islam from being publicly practiced, even criminalizing “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam.” The government there has continued to enforce a comprehensive anti-religious freedom legal regime, including imprisoning people for blasphemy and apostasy.
- China continues to reportedly detain and harass both registered and nonregistered religious groups in the country.
Yet new religious freedom problems have also emerged in recent years, and in places not traditionally associated with religious freedom violations – like Western Europe. They are also documented in the report:
- In the United Kingdom, a university “expelled a Christian graduate student after he expressed his opposition to gay marriage on social media because of his Christian beliefs.”
- Elsewhere in Europe, such as France, attacks against Jews, Muslims, and Christians because of their religion have continued to occur.
We should specifically take note of the expelled U.K. graduate student, for the same forces opposed to a religious belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman are the same forces operating in the United States and elsewhere around the world. As we increasingly face domestic religious freedom problems related to this issue, this example is a reminder that we must guard the same religious freedom at home which we fight for around the world. Neither can be taken for granted.
The 2016 report is a valuable resource for assessing the state of religious freedom around the globe. It isn’t perfect – it aims a bit too broadly at times, commenting on matters such as speeches directed at immigration policy in Europe, or, for instance, an investigation into alleged tax fraud in the Muslim community in Denmark. These are not substantive religious freedom violations, and including them in such a report diminishes real religious freedom problems such as imprisonment for sharing one’s faith. Reasonable people will disagree over the precise role of religion in democracies, and a religious freedom violation does not occur every time someone remarks on the role of religion in a larger social controversy.
All in all, the report is a valuable tool to continue to address religious freedom shortcomings worldwide. While this can be done in several ways, one very helpful step would be to incorporate the issue more broadly into our foreign policy. With the appointment of Governor Brownback as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department, we have an opportunity to do just that – and more – as we look ahead with the new foreign policy of the Trump administration.