Religious freedom under ‘sustained assault’ around the world, report finds

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This image made from video released by militants in Libya claiming loyalty to the Islamic State group purportedly shows Egyptian Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits being led along a beach, each accompanied by a masked militant. (Associated Press)
By Guy Taylor – The Washington Times –

Citing the Islamic State’s attacks on Christians and other religious minorities, rising bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe and Beijing’s campaign against churches in China, a new U.S. government report said Monday that attacks on religious freedom have grown measurably around the world over the past year.

While President Obama has pursued openings with some key offenders, including Iran and Myanmar, and criticized others such as North Korea and China, the annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said embattled faith groups are “under serious and sustained assault” in those nations and beyond.

“Regrettably, the situation is that things have not improved, and in some places things have gotten worse,” said Robert P. George, who chairs the bipartisan federal commission.

Mr. George added that there has been “a continued gap between rhetoric of the regime and the situation on the ground” in recent years. “While we welcome the rhetoric, rhetoric doesn’t really matter unless it’s accompanied by action,” he said.

The report itself faulted such usual suspects as North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, but departed from past years by leveling sharp criticism at some key U.S. allies and nations with whom the Obama administration has recently sought warmer relations.

An Iraqi Assyrian woman who fled from Mosul to Lebanon holds a placard depicting the map of Iraq and Syria, during a sit-in for abducted Christians in Syria and Iraq, at a church in Sabtiyesh area east Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. Islamic State militants snatched more hostages from homes in northeastern Syria over the past three days, bringing the total number of Christians abducted to over 220 in the one the largest hostage-takings by the extremist group, activists said Thursday. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

An Iraqi Assyrian woman who fled from Mosul to Lebanon holds a … more >

The report called on the State Department to add eight nations to its existing list of “countries of particular concern,” which the commission defines as “countries whose governments either engage in or tolerate ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom.”

There were already nine on the list — Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The commission said Monday in its 2016 annual report that Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Tajikistan should be added.

Ten other nations — including Afghanistan, Cuba, India, Russia and Turkey — were listed as so-called “Tier 2” countries, where “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious.”

USCIRF, which has provided annual policy recommendations to the White House, State Department and Congress since its inception in 1998, also highlighted the “horrific global refugee crisis,” with “religion being a factor in humanitarian crises worldwide that have forced millions to flee.”

In a conference call with reporters, Mr. George said American officials should be doing more to make the protection of religious freedom a focal point of dealing with the refugee crises.

While he took care not to directly criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the situation, Mr. George, a professor at Princeton University, said that “the right to religious freedom deserves a prominent seat at the table.”

The panel said the State Department has improved its outreach to oppressed religious communities around the world, but lamented that Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein sits “among a crowded field of officials with overlapping mandates.”

“We’d like Ambassador Saperstein to be listened to in a more focused way,” said Mr. George.

The worst offenders

While Monday’s report did not rank the nations for their offenses to religious freedom, Mr. George said without hesitation that North Korea “is one of the worst offending nations, if not the worst offending nation in the world.”

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