By Travis Weber and Arielle Del Turco
Arielle Del Turco is a Research Assistant at the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. Travis Weber is Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs and Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Washington Examiner on July 12, 2019.
Government representatives, advocates, and religious leaders of all faiths from around the globe descended on Washington, D.C., to attend this week’s State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Last year, the event encouraged international leaders to reaffirm their commitment to promote the fundamental human right of religious liberty.
Ahead of this year’s Ministerial, the State Department released the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom at the end of June, which documents the freedom of people in countries around the world to choose and practice their faith. Although the report notes areas of progress, 2018 overall . was not a great year for religious freedom around the world.
Topping the list of noteworthy religious freedom violators is China, whose restrictions on religious practice are only getting worse. In the month of August 2018 alone, Chinese authorities reportedly demolished or closed over 100 churches in the province of Henan alone. Reports also indicate that Chinese government officials and private companies routinely compel Christians to sign documents renouncing their faith.
The State Department dedicated a subsection of the report to the Chinese government’s surveillance and suppression of religious minorities in the western province of Xinjiang. Most of China’s Uyghur Muslims, a Turkic ethnic minority who have become a particular target of the Chinese government, reside in Xinjiang. An estimated 880,000 to 2 million Uyghurs are detained in what the Chinese government calls “re-education camps.” The report notes, “detainees described interrogations and torture, including beatings, staff hanging detainees from ceilings and walls, and prolonged shackling” in the camps.
It’s not just Muslims and Christians: All religious minorities face persecution from the Chinese government. In place of religion, authorities promote “loyalty to the Communist Party as the most important value.”
Elsewhere, the report criticizes Iran. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted this in announcing the report’s release, “Iranian religious minorities including Bahaiis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni, and Sufi Muslims faced discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs.”
The report notes that the Iranian penal code “specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for … ‘enmity against God’ and … ‘insulting the Prophet.’” What more needs to be said? The constitution of Iran states that citizens can only enjoy rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
The report also criticizes Indian government officials for their rhetoric against religious minorities and the government’s failure to take actions to protect religious minorities from violent Hindu mobs. Hindu mobs killed dozens of Muslims and Christians last year.
Anil Baluni, the National Media head of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party, responded hotly to the report’s criticism of Indian President Narendra Modi in an official statement. “The basic presumption in this report that there is some grand design behind anti-minority violence is simply false,” he stated. “Whenever needed, Mr. Modi and other BJP leaders have deplored violence against minorities and weaker sections.”
This reaction from the leaders of India is encouraging because it shows that the report is having an effect. Cynical activists sometimes criticize the government for publishing reports about problems instead of fixing them, and this is often a valid criticism. But in the sensitive arena of international affairs, U.S. government reports that include public condemnation can mean a lot to foreign governments. It is significant that this report was meaningful enough to prompt the Indian government to issue an official statement to flat-out deny the contents of the report.
If regional powers like India show such interest in U.S. opinion, smaller, less-powerful countries around the world will certainly consider the opinion of the United States important, especially where they rely on U.S. financial and military aid, directly or indirectly. When the U.S. government takes the time to praise religious freedom progress and criticize religious freedom abuses of other countries, foreign leaders take notice.
Events like this are important because they demonstrate to state leaders that their track record on religious liberty is visible on the world stage. Countries that violate human rights — religious liberty among them — should be embarrassed when those issues are highlighted internationally.
While the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom contains a lot of bad news, the fact that its publication has provoked such a response from world leaders is good news in itself. It’s important that the U.S. communicate to foreign leaders that protecting religious liberty is essential to earning our respect. The State Department’s report and the upcoming ministerial are effective ways to do that. These public means can increase the social pressure foreign leaders feel to protect their religious minorities and enshrine religious liberty into their laws.