An annual U.S. government report finds religious freedom under assault throughout the world, notably in what the State Department calls Countries of Particular Concern — China, Iran, North Korea among others.
“In China, state-sponsored repression against all religions continues to intensify. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now ordering religious organizations to obey CCP leadership and infuse communist dogma into their teachings and practice of their faith,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Wednesday press briefing on the release of the State Department’s 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom.
The report comes after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 2 to advance international religious freedom, instructing the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to “develop a plan to prioritize international religious freedom” and to “budget at least $50 million per fiscal year for programs that advance international religious freedom.”
Countries of Particular Concern
On December 18, 2019, the State Department redesignated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.”
In China, Wednesday’s report says, the CCP continues “to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state.” China has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern since 1999.
China has long denied the U.S. criticism, calling the accusations "wrong words and deeds" that slander China's religious policies and the state of freedom of religious beliefs.
In past years after the U.S. released its reports, Chinese officials often asked the U.S. to abandon "prejudices” and “stop politicizing religious issues.”
U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said Wednesday that the mass detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang continues.
“We have no evidence that they’ve been released, and even if they were released, they’re released into a virtual police state that China has created,” said Brownback, when asked during the press briefing if some Muslim Uighur leaders were released during the coronavirus outbreak.
Brownback added that the U.S. is sanctioning companies whose products are produced by forced labor and "they cannot be received into the U.S. marketplace.”
U.S. officials on Wednesday noted positive steps are being taken to improve religious freedom in countries such as Gambia, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan.
“We documented no police raids of unregistered religious group meetings during 2019, compared with 114 such raids in 2018, and 240 the year before that. These are great strides, real progress,” said Pompeo in Wednesday’s briefing, referring to improvement in Uzbekistan.
The top U.S. diplomat said Muslim-majority UAE “has become the first country in the Middle East to permit the construction of a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Executions in Iran
On Iran, human rights nongovernmental organizations continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis and Arabs. Human rights groups also raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions and denials of access to legal counsel, said the State Department report. Iran has been designated as a CPC since 1999. The U.S. has existing ongoing travel restrictions on Iran based on its serious human rights abuses.
In North Korea, the report said defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, co-workers and other members of society for fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely.
While North Korea's constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, the State Department report said multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed, including “an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” since the findings of the 2014 Report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea.
Elsewhere in the world, the U.S. placed Russia on a "Special Watch List" for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. Calling on Russia to release detained American Paul Whelan, Pompeo said Washington will continue to examine closely Moscow’s other human rights violations.
“The United States will also keep our focus on Moscow’s other human rights violations. Since 2015, Russia has conscripted thousands of Crimean men into its armed forces and imposed criminal penalties on those who do not comply. Russia must end its repression of those who oppose its occupation, release unjustly imprisoned Ukrainians, and return full control to the peninsula of Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine,” said Pompeo.
The release Wednesday of the State Department’s religious freedom report comes amid anti-discrimination protests in the U.S. after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in late May.
“I think this administration has and continues to support peaceful protesters wherever we find them,” said Pompeo, when asked by a reporter how the Trump administration can “so vocally” support protests in places like Hong Kong while being silent on some perceived police violence in the U.S.
“When we get something wrong here in the United States, when something as tragic and as awful as what happened to George Floyd takes place, the government responds. We saw both local law enforcement and our Department of Justice move very quickly to address the particular situation,” said Pompeo, as he defended the U.S. political system as one that encourages a “wide open debate” on issues that confront the nation.