Across the globe, international religious freedom (IRF) is noticeably more at risk than ever before. Freedom to gather, worship, pray, and share beliefs and traditions of faith are increasingly violated. Spanning the world from Asia to Africa to the Middle East and beyond, numerous countries are repeatedly cited year after year for inflicting dangerous and deadly abuses upon their religious minorities. And Christians continue to pay the ultimate price for their faith.
Open Doors, a trusted IRF watchdog, recently reported that globally, "[m]ore than 340 million Christians -- one in eight -- face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith." In addressing this issue, perhaps one of the most significant reports regarding IRF emanates from the U.S. State Department. Their 2020 report was released on May 12.
At FRC, we regularly report on IRF violations while seeking solutions for beleaguered people of faith. In recent months, we have focused on abuses in China, North Korea and Nigeria -- to name but a few. The 2020 State Department report undergirds our concern for these countries.
For example, with regard to China, the 2020 report explains, "Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture... Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread."
As former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out last October, "[t]he gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party's war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike."
North Korea is a closed society, and it is nearly impossible to know precisely what takes place inside that so-called Hermit Kingdom. But the new State Department Report provides some indications: "Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated that at year's end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian."
As for Nigeria, the danger and death toll has only gotten worse in recent months. And the Nigerian government has been worse than useless in protecting its non-Muslim population.
Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah summed up the matter:
"We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power... By denying Christians lands for places of worship across most of the northern states, ignoring the systematic destruction of churches all these years, denying Christians adequate recruitment, representation, and promotions in the State civil services, denying their indigenous children scholarships, marrying Christian women, or converting Christians while threatening Muslim women and prospective converts with death, they make building a harmonious community impossible."
For further information and to access full country reports in addition to these three examples, a visit to the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom is time well spent.
Meanwhile, also on May 12, the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a hearing, Ending Genocide: U.S. Government Genocide Determinations and Next Steps in a webinar format. It focused on two specific issues: "The Burmese military continues to violently target the mostly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, and the Chinese government continues to hold the predominately Muslim Uyghur people in detention camps, enact measures to decrease the population, and actively separate children from their parents."
In further evidence provided by the Free Yazidi Foundation, the 2014 Yazidi-Christian genocide perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq also provided recent and potent example of ethnic and religious groups being specifically targeted.
USCIRF Co-Chair Tony Perkins summed up why the importance of the United States focus on mass atrocities continues to be a significant step toward international religious freedom:
"It is important to note that genocide designations are just a step, and more must be done to effectively halt and prevent ongoing mass atrocities against religious groups, regardless of what those atrocities are called. We cannot just focus on the label of 'genocide,' as the longer governments deliberate on the terminology, the more perpetrators are emboldened to continue their genocidal process. Alongside these deliberations, governments must vigilantly look for early warning signs and stand up to prevent mass atrocities wherever they could occur."
As these two developments show us, there is much more to be done in the area of international religious freedom.