Annual Report Highlights Worsening Freedom of Belief Worldwide

May 13, 2013
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States
Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN 

Dwayne Leslie, director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist world church, speaks at a religious liberty event in April at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. Leslie is among religious freedom advocates troubled by this year’s report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. [photo: Andrew King]

 This year’s report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has Seventh-day Adventist human rights experts concerned over growing state-sponsored or condoned intolerance toward minority faith groups worldwide.

“We are again reminded that for religious minorities, of which Seventh-day Adventists are in many regions, things can actually be very difficult and, in many places, are getting worse,” said Dwayne Leslie, director of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist world church.

The report from the independent commission categorizes offenders as tier 1, tier 2 or “watch list” countries. “Tier 1” nations are designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), where religious liberty violations are defined as “systemic, ongoing and egregious,” and include torture, prolonged detention without charges, disappearances and “other flagrant denial[s] of life, liberty or the security of persons.” Countries re-designated as CPCs this year are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Newly categorized this year as “tier 1” nations are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. While not yet officially CPCs, these countries do “meet the threshold” for “tier 1” designation, the report states.

Countries designated as “tier 2” by the report are so listed for displaying “negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom.” These countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

A small third group of nations comprise a watch list, and the commission is “monitoring” them for violations. Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey, Venezuela and Western Europe are on this list.

Western Europe has drawn criticism in recent years for curbing religious expression among minority faiths. Laws in France and Belgium now ban the burqa and other full-face veils. Switzerland has barred the construction of new minarets, or prayer towers atop Muslim mosques. And so-called defamation of religion laws—which religious freedom experts say could restrict religious speech worldwide—continue to emerge in the region.

In Iran, Leslie said, the government continues its oppression, arrest and, in some cases, torture of Christians, most recently American pastor Saeed Abedini, who was imprisoned in Iran in September ostensibly for his religious beliefs.

Pakistan, too, has made headlines in recent months for violence against Christians. In March, a mob torched the homes and businesses of a Christian community in response to alleged insults against Muhammad.

Nigeria is another increasingly troubling area, Leslie said. There, the extremist group Boko Haram has unleashed sectarian violence on Christian communities in recent years, regularly bombing churches and leaving hundreds of worshippers dead. Since January, Adventists in the country have reported declining church attendance and some church closures amid the country’s worsening religious conflict.

Countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Nigeria, Leslie said, are deeply entrenched in intolerance, and the report is unlikely to change their behavior. But for newly watch-listed countries, “dialogue can hopefully lead to greater freedom of belief,” he said.

After reviewing religious freedom violations, USCIRF makes policy recommendations to the U.S. president, secretary of state and Congress. These recommendations can include arms embargos, restrictions on exports and, Leslie added, further talks with some offending nations.

Beyond that, Leslie said, the report “constantly keeps religious liberty in the public eye, reminding people why it’s important for us to continue to fight for freedom for all people of faith.”