The U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom has accused Russia of engaging in the "suppression of religious leaders" and condemned its military forces' "appalling destruction of religious sites" in Ukraine during the State Department's release of its annual report documenting the state of religious freedom worldwide.
The U.S. State Department released the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report Thursday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference in the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room Thursday that the report offers a "thorough, fact-based review of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world."
The State Department has published a report on international religious freedom every year since 1998 as part of its requirements under the International Religious Freedom Act. This year's report is over 2,000 pages long.
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain highlighted three key themes that summarized the findings in the document.
He said the report revealed that "too many governments use discriminatory laws and policies and abuse their own people," listing China and Burma as examples of countries that have engineered "genocides of religious minority communities in recent years." He warned that "rising societal intolerance and hatred are fueling violence and conflict around the world."
Hussain lamented that Russia, which the department recognizes as a country of particular concern for tolerating or engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom, has "doubled down on its violations of religious freedom rather than reverse course."
"Russian courts regularly reach new milestones for excessive prison sentences against individuals exercising their religious freedom," he said.
Hussain condemned Russia's "unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine" that began in February. He said the invasion includes the "suppression of religious leaders and the appalling destruction of religious sites."
"Russian authorities carry out hundreds of home raids against suspected extremists that frequently include violence," he added.
Blinken criticized governments that "continue to use blasphemy and apostasy laws" banning defamation and renunciation of religion "to police the language of religious minorities."
"Others curtail expressions of religious belief like restrictions on religious attire," he said. "In all societies, including our own and across Europe, we must do more to combat rising forms of hate including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment."
"In March, based on extensive legal review of the evidence, I made the determination that Burma's military committed genocide and crimes against humanity with the intent to destroy [the] predominantly Muslim Rohingya [people] in 2017," he continued. "[The] intent that was evidenced by, among other things, attacks on mosques, the use of religious and ethnic slurs, the desecration of Qurans, among, again, many other actions."
Blinken cited Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, China and Afghanistan as other countries that routinely discriminate against religious minorities.
"In Eritrea, only four religious groups are permitted to practice their faith freely, while members of other religious minority groups have been detained, arrested, [and] forced to renounce their faith as a precondition for their release," the secretary asserted.
"In Saudi Arabia, we recognize the important recent moves to increase interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. However, publicly practicing any faith other than Islam remains illegal. And the government continues to discriminate against members of religious minority communities."
Blinken warned that "far too many governments remain undeterred in the repression of their citizens."
"China continues its genocide and repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other religious minority groups," Blinken stated, telling reporters that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps in Western China since 2017.
"The PRC continues to harass adherents of other religions that it deems out of line with Chinese Communist Party doctrine" by destroying their houses of worship and "erecting barriers to employment" for religious minorities," Blinken added.
"There are thousands of Uyghur family members, daughters and sons [who] are desperate to know where their parents are but are terrified of what news they could discover and are wondering whether they will ever be safely reunited," Hussain proclaimed. "The PRC government also continued its crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists. Authorities arrested, tortured and committed other abuses against Tibetans who promoted their language and culture, possessed pictures and writings of the Dalai Lama or practiced their religion at Buddhist monasteries."
Blinken said religious freedom in Afghanistan has "deteriorated dramatically" following the Taliban's takeover of the country last summer as the Islamic terrorist group has "crack[ed] down on the basic rights of women and girls to get an education, to work, to engage in society, often under the banner of religion."
At the same time, the terrorist group "ISIS-K is conducting increasingly violent attacks against religious minorities."
Blinken stressed that in Pakistan, "at least 16 individuals accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by Pakistani courts in 2021 though none of these sentences has yet to be carried out."
Hussain added that "democratic backsliding and the rise in nationalism and nativist rhetoric and policies have been used to justify violence towards members of ethnic or religious minority groups and historically marginalized peoples." He contended that "social media platforms are used to spread hate speech and to incite violence by vilifying and threatening members of religious minorities."
Hussain praised the "powerful collaboration among civil society, governments and multilateral partners has led to some progress and provides hope in addressing these complex challenges." Both Blinken and Hussain repeatedly praised civil society throughout their remarks.
Blinken expressed gratitude to "faith leaders, religious organizations, [and] human rights groups" who "shared their perspectives and analysis" for the report.
Hussain rejoiced that the U.S. has "more partners in this effort now than ever before, including religious leaders. And religion can be such a powerful force for good and it should never be used to harm people."
"Our greatest hope is that together, we can unite our efforts to ensure respect of freedom of religion or belief for all people around the globe, and we continue to stand in solidarity with all people seeking to exercise their beliefs," Hussain concluded. "Civil society groups in countries all over the world are essential to this report and to our work. Their advocacy changes laws and lifts up the names of prisoners, provides lawyers to fight against various charges, and pushes governments, including our own, to do the right thing."
"Independent and strong civil societies help governments solve problems and better serve their people by shining a light on issues that matter the most," Hussain insisted. "Change is only possible with the hard work of the groups and individuals dedicated to fighting for these rights."
Blinken listed Morocco, Taiwan and Iraq as countries that have shown "notable progress" in the last year.
"Last year, the Kingdom of Morocco launched an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites like synagogues and cemeteries and to include Jewish history in the Moroccan public school curriculum," he said.
"In Taiwan, authorities are making it easier to report employers who refuse to give their workers a weekly rest day in order to attend religious services," Blinken added. "In Iraq, national leaders welcomed Pope Francis for the first-ever papal visit to the country, where he conducted Christian interfaith ceremonies in Baghdad, in Mosul and in the Iraqi-Kurdish region."
Blinken said that societies are "better off" when "the fundamental right of each person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected." When countries deny this right, it "sows division" and "ignites tension" that leads to instability and conflict.
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: email@example.com