The Rising Human Toll of Religious Freedom Abuses


The Rising Human Toll of Religious Freedom Abuses

15 May 2015

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes growing abuse and persecution of religious minorities, naming 17 countries of concern. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics draws out the key points.

For the first time, the annual United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, published on 30 April 2015, recognises that non-state actors, such as transnational groups, are some of the most egregious violators of religious freedom. This is apparent in countries such as the Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, where governments have been unable to address violations committed by groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS.

The displacement of religious communities emerges as a key theme in this year's report.

There are some key themes that emerge from the latest report, notably blasphemy laws, displacement, non-state actors, prisoners of conscience, the persecution of religious communities, and transnational justice. The report notes specifically the human toll of religious communities which have been forced from their homes in 2014 in countries such as the Central African Republic, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria and Syria.

The USCIRF has this year recommended nine countries of particular concern (CPC) at Tier 1 level, and suggests that the US State Department should again maintain these at this level over their stance on religious freedom. They are: Myanmar (Burma), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

USCIRF also recommend that the following additional eight countries be designated as CPCs at Tier 1 level by the US State Department: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

The next group of ten countries are marked as Tier 2 by USCIRF. These are countries where there are religious freedom violations, but do not fully meet the CPC designation. They are:  Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russiaand Turkey.

The last group of six countries are those that USCIRF recommends be on a watch list, and monitored closely for their stance on religious freedom. These are: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cyprus, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka.

In countries such as Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia, the report notes that blasphemy laws violate religious freedom; with governments using the laws to silence critics and extremists in positions of power, and to use them to enforce their ideologies on others.

In terms of displacement, there have been numerous reports over the past year suggesting that displacement is now at record levels, with religious groups being a key factor in this, most notably the recent reports of the Rohingya Muslims being left stranded off the coast of Thailand as they flee persecution in Myanmar, but also the huge numbers displaced in Syria and Iraq, a direct result of the advance of ISIS.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center recently released its  annual report, finding that a record 38 million people worldwide were now internally displaced, with 11 million displaced in 2014 alone.

The USCIRF report notes that these humanitarian crises are foremost affecting many religious groups in countries such as Iraq, with over 2 million displaced, including the Yezidi and Christian communities, and over 6.5 million in Syria. Interesting to note is a recommendation by the report for the International Criminal Court to prosecute members of ISIS for violations against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The report notes that prisoners of conscience remain a leading human rights concern, such as the case in China where the respected Uighur Muslim scholar, Ilham Tohti was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison in November 2014 for standing up for the rights of the Uighur Muslim community in Xinjiang province.

Very grave concerns for entire religious communities in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Myanmar.

There are very grave concerns for entire religious communities says the report, particularly in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Myanmar, with attacks in Iraq and Syria on Yezidis and Assyrians by ISIS. There have also been attacks in northeast Nigeria on Christians and Muslims by Boko Haram, and in Myanmar on the Rohingya Muslim community by Buddhist nationalists, but also here a stance by the government of Myanmar not to recognise the Rohingya as citizens of the country at all.

For the first time the Central African Republic appears on the CPC list, which the report says is a result of the sectarian violence in the country between the Antibalaka and Seleka rebel groups. This has resulted in over a million people being displaced due to the violence, with 80 per cent of the country's Muslims fleeing in 2014. The report highlights the sectarian violence that has occurred since 2013, which it says has developed into a religious conflict. There are a number of views on this, which the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has touched upon in various commentaries.

Another country that USCIRF says it is monitoring closely is Malaysia, which appears in Tier 2. There have been a number of developments concerning the country in 2014, including the laws and policies by the Malaysian government which ban religious groups such as Shia, Ahmadiyya and Baha'i, and how the government sought to expand the use of Sharia courts in some areas. This all comes at a time when there are concerns that ISIS is infiltrating the South East Asian region, particularly countries like Malaysia.

Myanmar is also a country that USCIRF has monitored closely, and which has appeared on the CPC list every year since 1999. The organistaion says it has put forward an action plan that recommends the US enter an agreement with Myanmar to end violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, and curtailing those perpetrating or inciting violence.

Similarly, Indonesia has again been left in its same grouping (Tier 2) by USCIRF, where it has been since 2003. The report notes that even though there is huge respect for religious freedom and pluralism in the country, and even more so since the election of President Joko Widodo in 2014, who is intent on drafting a law on religious tolerance to protect religious minorities, there are deeply engrained discriminatory practices from the previous administration.

Both Myanmar and Indonesia face the challenge of rising religious intolerance, but there are practical ways in which they can tackle this by strengthening voices of peace in every religion, as the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has commented on previously.

Pakistan has seen continuing violence, targeting Shia Muslims, Christians, Ahmadi, Muslims and Hindus, and the report says that the government does not adequately protect these targeted groups. One incident was the attack against a school Peshawar in December 2014, which left 145 dead, including 132 school children. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for this incident, but even since, further attacks have taken place throughout the country.

USCIRF has signed 30 parliamentarians up to charter on religious freedom.

A key initiative by USCIRF has been to build a coalition of global parliamentarians to support freedom of religion or belief and the organisation succeeded in getting 30 parliamentarians to sign a joint statement, the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Additionally, these signatories also sent letters to Pakistan, Myanmar and North Korea, expressing their grave concerns about the poor religious freedoms in these countries.

There are two main recommendations by USCIRF this year:

  • To expand the CPC classification to allow for the designation of countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are occurring but a government does not exist or does not control its territory;
  • To expand the CPC classification to allow the naming of non-state actors who are perpetrating particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

The United States Commission on Religious Freedom Annual Report 2015 can be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.


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United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)