5 Takeaways from the International Religious Freedom Report

A Rohingya refugee holds up his UN-issued identity card, his only identity document as a stateless person. Photo by Meagan Clark.

A Rohingya refugee holds up his UN-issued identity card, his only identity document as a stateless person. Photo by Meagan Clark.

(NEWS ANALYSIS) The U.S. State Department released its annual international religious freedom report on Friday, describing religious persecution across the world but particularly in Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, China and Russia.

The annual report to Congress has provided a brief about the state of religious liberty in every country in the world every year since 1998, when Congress and former president Bill Clinton passed the International Religious Freedom Act to include the promotion of religious freedom as an American foreign policy strategy. State Department diplomats gather information from local organizations, government policies and religious communities to write chapters on their respective countries. This report contains only events from January to December 2018.

Watch Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deliver remarks here (25 min). Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, answered questions from the media. According to Brownback, 80 percent of the world’s people live in a place where religious freedom is under attack.

Here are the top takeaways from the report and its release:

1. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst offenders

Saudi Arabia has been on the list of “countries of particular concern,” the designation for most alarming, since 2004. There is no freedom to practice a non-Muslim faith in public, and the law prohibits Muslims from converting to another faith, polytheizing to Muslims, and criminalizes challenging or casting doubt on Islam or Saudi royalty.

Pompeo’s announcement that Saudi Arabia is “one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution” comes on the heels of a U.S. Senate block of President Trump’s plan to sell arms to the country and a United Nations report that found the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman orchestrated the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and an attempted cover-up.

2. For the first time, the China section contains a separate sub-section on Xinjiang

The province where an estimated 800,000 to 2 million Uighur Muslims are being detained in “re-education” camps.

The Chinese government heavily regulates religious activity from its five official faiths (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism). Reports from China continue to include torture, forced disappearance, imprisonment, killings and harassment for religious beliefs. In addition to Uighurs, Fulan Gong followers, Tibetan Buddhists and Christians fare the worst. There were four reports of self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhist monks in 2018, a form of non-violent protest against the Chinese government’s control of Tibet. Christian churches have been required to install surveillance cameras so police can monitor their congregants daily.

3. Russia continues to discriminate against religious minorities like Jehovah’s Witnesses

Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2017 that classified Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, criminalizing their religious activities, the faith group has suffered housing and employment discrimination, beatings, attacks on their homes, arson and arrests. Nearly 200 people, mostly Muslims, were also arrested for “offensive” public speech. A few foreign nationals were deported for their religious activity, including two African pastors and a rabbi.

The Russian Orthodox Church continues to receive special treatment from the government, like the right to review drafts of laws and greater access to public institutions.

4. Myanmar (Burma) continued to deny the genocidal intent of its military toward the Rohingya people.

After the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in 2017, which displaced more than 700,000 people who fled mainly to Bangladesh, the Rohingya in Myanmar continue to suffer severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, access to schools, healthcare and livelihoods. In March, the UN found that the government appeared to be using starvation as a way to kill Rohingya people remaining in Rakhine State. In September, a UN fact-finding mission (without the Myanmar government’s permission to enter Rakhine State) reported atrocities committed by the Myanmar military against Rohingya, including murders, arson and rape, which the government continued to deny.

5. For the first time in 13 years, Uzbekistan is no longer on the highest designation for concern

The government has created a plan in response to U.N. recommendations for greater religious freedom and a council of faiths where leaders from 17 faiths can discuss issues. The government also released 185 prisoners of extremism charges. Still, new converts to Christianity in particular still face discrimination, only groups whose registrations have been approved by the government can freely operate, and public school dress codes now prohibit religious garb like crosses or hijabs.

Other positives included small steps like that Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy charges, and Turkey released an American pastor from jail.