For the last 25 years, the United States has promoted global fidelity to its First Amendment.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) into law, mandating yearly reports to detail the respect given to this fundamental right in every nation of the world.
Not every nation is pleased.
“We are sometimes asked,” stated Rashad Hussain, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, “‘Who are you as the United States to speak to other countries about their human rights conditions?’”
Hussain, whose State Department position was also created by IRFA, replied to the rhetorical question during this week’s launch of the 2022 IRF report. Covering 199 countries—US allies and enemies alike—it prepares the ground for year-end designation of the worst offenders as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), with second-tier violators placed on a Special Watch List (SWL).
His two-fold answer began with US leadership grounded in its unique and foundational Bill of Rights. But he continued with immigration, evidencing preference for American rights in so many of the same 199 nations studied.
“People come to the United States from all around the world and demand that their elected representatives and government official promote our values in their homelands,” said Hussain. “In many ways we are representatives of the rest of the world, gathered here in the United States.”
The report’s Appendix G provides an overview of refugee policy, stating 25,465 individuals were resettled permanently in the US in fiscal 2022. Priority is given to CPC and SWL nationals suffering from religious persecution.
The highlighted litany of offenders is familiar.
Russia represses people of faith who spoke against its invasion of Ukraine.
Afghanistan sidelines all who differ from the Taliban’s austere religious interpretation of Islam.
Burma (Myanmar) attacks the homes of its Muslim Rohingya minority.
Saudi Arabia makes illegal the practice of any religion apart from Islam.
India tolerates hate speech against its Muslim citizens.
And China offends at many levels. Re-education camps exist for Uyghur Muslims. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are destroyed. Christians are surveilled; Falun Gong practitioners are tortured.
The 49-page section stated thousands are imprisoned for their spiritual beliefs.
Hewing the original question, China claimed “ideological bias” was behind the report. India blamed “flawed understanding” behind US complaints.
Meanwhile, positive reception came from Belize and Bangladesh.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken preceded Hussain with praise for other nations. Belgium formally recognized its Buddhist minority. Brazil codified religious freedom guarantees for its indigenous communities. And the Central African Republic has continued to prosecute religion-based violence.
“We defend the right to believe or to not believe, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because of the extraordinary good that people of faith can do in our societies and around the world,” Blinken stated. “We are acting on the findings and observations of the report every single day.”
Yet perhaps not enough.
While the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—also created by IRFA—“commended” the report, Abraham Cooper chided the State Department for issuing sanctions waivers to violating nations.
“The administration and Congress must now use this body of evidence,” stated the USCIRF vice chair, “to pressure governments to protect religious freedom and penalize with tangible consequences those that blatantly continue to commit egregious violations.”
A third of the 12 CPCs—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—received no penalty for their abuses.
Senator Marco Rubio lamented one nation left off both the CPC and SWL lists.
“As a nation, it is both morally imperative and strategically important for us to remain steadfast in our commitment to combat the unjust persecution of individuals worldwide who peacefully live out their faith or beliefs,” stated the Florida Republican. “It is deeply concerning that the Biden administration continues to provide excuses for the Nigerian government.”
Nigeria was briefly designated as a CPC by the Trump administration in 2020, before being removed by the Biden administration the following year. Hussain, nonetheless, highlighted the plight of six-year captive Leah Sharibu, held by the West Africa branch of the Islamic State, who turned 20 years old one day before the report’s release.
Blinken additionally criticized Iran for cracking down on protests associated with hijab-removing Masa Amini’s death in police custody. The report stated that 19,204 individuals have since been arrested for “enmity against God.”
He also cited Nicaragua’s 160 attacks last year against the Catholic church.
And echoing Hussain’s remarks, in the report’s written introduction Blinken anchored American leadership back to a heritage grounded in the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. The US commitment later inspired the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with Article 18 guaranteeing the peaceful espousal of any religious belief.
Blinken also invoked Clinton, who 50 years later tied US support for religious freedom to the wholesale promotion of human rights. It is a “bedrock American belief,” the president noted at the signing of IRFA, as he signed into law a “range of new tools” to protect the persecuted.
Hussain, the first Muslim to inhabit the office, pledged continuity.
“Religion can be such a powerful force for good in the world,” he stated. “We vow to redouble our efforts to ensure greater respect for freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere.”
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