The US State Department is taking new steps to call out China as one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. Last week, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback rebuked the world’s most-populous country for ramping up what Brownback called its “war on faith.”
The latest Report on International Religious Freedom from the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF), released last Friday, details the status of religious liberty in every country in the world other than the United States, elaborating on abuses in 10 countries of particular concern (CPC)—Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
This year’s report describes religious freedom issues in the country’s mainland, Tibet, Macau, and Hong Kong, where longsuffering Christians have played a central role in recent pro-democracy protests.
It also includes a special section dedicated to China’s malfeasance in Xinjiang, the autonomous northwestern province where between 800,000 and 2 million Uighur Muslims have been detained and, according to the report, subjected to “forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity.”
“We’ve seen increasing Chinese government abuse of believers of nearly all faiths and from all parts of the mainland,” said Brownback, who cited concerns over organ harvesting among Chinese prisoners of conscience, interference in Tibetan Buddhist and cultural practices, and Christian persecution.
“They’ve increased their repression of Christians, shutting down churches and arresting adherents for their peaceful religious practices,” Brownback said. “And to this we say to China: Do not be mistaken, you will not win your war on faith. This will have consequences on your standing at home and around the world.”
The IRF report largely aligned with the recent report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a separate, bipartisan commission that also assesses the world’s worst violators of religious liberty. USCIRF says its reports “are different from, and complementary to,” the IRF reports, with the commission saying its scope and bent toward policy recommendations is unique, and that “Whereas the State Department must account for overall bilateral relationships in its reporting, USCIRF has the independence and objectivity to call out violations wherever and whenever they may occur.”
USCIRF named 28 countries that stand out as religious freedom offenders, including 16 countries the commission identified as Tier 1 CPCs. All 10 of the IRF’s CPCs are included in USCIRF’s list of top-tier offenders, while USCIRF recommends adding the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam to the list of leading abusers of the freedom of religion and conscience.
Both reports echo the 2019 World Watch List rankings of countries where it is hardest to be a Christian, which bumped China from No. 43 of the globe’s worst Christian persecutors in 2018 to No. 27 this year.
Announcing the release of the IRF report, Pompeo described his personal faith as an Evangelical Presbyterian—“I was a Sunday school teacher and a deacon at my church”—and decried the governments and groups around the world that deny others the “unalienable right” to practice their beliefs.
He highlighted a few instances of “good news,” praising improvements in Uzbekistan, which for the first time in more than a decade is no longer designated by the State Department as a country of particular concern (CPC). The Uzbek government recently passed a religious freedom roadmap, freed 1,500 religious prisoners, and loosened travel restrictions on 16,000 who had been blacklisted for their religious affiliations.
Pakistan—where Asia Bibi, a Christian charged with blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and threatened with execution, was acquitted by the country’s supreme court—was cited as a win for religious freedom, along with Turkey, where pastor Andrew Brunson was released last year after a two-year imprisonment on terrorism and espionage charges.
But even in these “good news” countries, there is still a long way to go. In Pakistan, more than 40 currently face life sentences or execution for the same charge leveled against Bibi. Another Christian woman condemned to death for blasphemy is currently imprisoned in Bibi’s old prison cell.
All three countries lauded by Pompeo were listed among the worst offenders in both the IRF and USCIRF reports. And according to the World Watch List, Pakistan is ranked No. 5 in the world for Christian persecution, Uzbekistan comes in at No. 17, and Turkey is No. 27.
And though Pompeo said Uzbekistan no longer qualifies as a CPC, it is a still a USCIRF Tier 1 offender and was named to the IRF’s Special Watch List, along with Comoros and Russia, for “governments that engaged in or tolerated severe violations but were deemed to not meet all the criteria of the CPC test.”
Pompeo and Brownback had more to say about countries the report exposes as featuring “a chilling array of abuses.” They specifically highlighted Iran, Eritrea, Russia, Nicaragua, and Burma for various abuses. China was again singled out as a leading actor in religious freedom violations.
“People are persecuted—handcuffed, thrown in jail, even killed—for their decision to believe, or not to believe,” Pompeo said. “For worshipping according to their conscience. For teaching their children about their faith. For speaking about their beliefs in public. For gathering in private, as so many of us have done, to study the Bible, the Torah, or the Qu’ran.”
To better assess and respond to religious oppression, Pompeo announced that the Office of International Religious Freedom, along with the State Department’s office dedicated to monitoring and fighting anti-Semitism, are getting a boost. Both offices are now elevated at the State Department, reporting directly to the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights.
“This reorganization will provide these offices with additional staff and resources, and enhance partnerships both within our agency and without,” Pompeo said. “It will empower them to better carry out their important mandates.”
“For all those that run roughshod over religious freedom,” said Pompeo, “I’ll say this: The United States is watching and you will be held to account.”