A staggering “80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion.”
On Tuesday, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, used this striking statistic to introduce the State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report. The IRF Report tracks religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, and is submitted to the U.S. Congress in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Tillerson’s remarks made a correlation between religious persecution and violent extremism, adding that “[n]o one should have to live in fear, worship in secret or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs.”
The 2016 IRF Report emphasized that the worldwide atrocities committed by the terrorist group, ISIS, are “crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.” This statement stands in stark contrast to reports from previous years, which fail to pointedly condemn ISIS’s genocidal activities. The report further examined how ISIS is one of the biggest threats to religious freedom across the globe and addressed deadly violations throughout the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe.
Secretary Tillerson’s Preface concluded that “ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled.”
As you know, the ACLJ has been working for years to protect victims of terrorism and religious persecution through its international affiliates in Pakistan, Kenya, and Europe. We recently sent letters to 12 key world leaders of countries outside of Iraq and Syria who have experienced attacks from ISIS. Our letters urge each country to use its influence to address the United Nation’s failure in taking action to prevent this genocide.
The IRF Report provides stark statistics showing that ISIS is spreading to new areas of the world. France has seen “[a]nti-Christian incidents increas[e] by 17 percent compared to the previous year,” including the ISIS attack at the July 14, 2016, French independence day celebration that killed 84 people. The report notes how terrorism has spread to Germany after a man drove a truck into a crowd in Berlin on December 19, 2016, killing 12 and injuring 56 people. In Egypt, “[r]eligious minorities continued to face significant threats of terrorist attacks,” with a suicide bomber killing 29 Coptic Christians during their Sunday service on December 11, 2016. ISIS has infiltrated South East Asia this year with “Islamic militant groups carried out killings, attacks, bombings, and kidnappings for ransom” in the Philippines.
Terrorist groups also continue to target Christian places of worship in Pakistan, according to the IRF Report. It described the horrific suicide bombing by a member of ISIS on March 27, 2016, in Lahore that killed 78 people and injured more than 350 during an Easter celebration. Our affiliate, the Organization of Legal Aid (OLA), partnered with Operation Blessing to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of the attack in Pakistan. Our team managed to help several families impaired from the incident be able to afford the cost of medical support, rent, and education for their children.
The IRF Report described continuous attempts to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, and “members of minority religious groups reported they continued to be hesitant to speak in favor of religious tolerance because of the societal climate of intolerance and fear” within Pakistan. Our affiliate, the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), gave an oral intervention before the United Nation’s Human Rights Council on behalf of persecuted Christians in Pakistan, arguing that the Pakistani government has failed to protect its minorities from religiously motivated violence, or to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Our affiliate in Pakistan, Organization for Legal Aid (OLA), represented an elderly Christian woman, Bashiran Bibi, who was assaulted by an influential Muslim man for refusing to clean his house. The Pakistani police refused to file a claim when Bashiran brought the medical report listing the numerous injuries. However, after the OLA intervened, the court ordered the officer to file charges and arrest the defendant, ultimately leading the Muslim defendant to pay Bashiran, a Christian, a significant settlement. It was our responsibility to see that justice was served.
According to the IRF Report, not only are Christians facing governmental persecution in Pakistan, but “many governments around the world us[e] discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief.” The Iranian government executed 20 individuals in 2016 under vague apostasy laws with charges that included “waging war against God.”
At Tuesday’s public release of the IRF Report, Secretary Tillerson demanded Turkey release a U.S. citizen, Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been “wrongfully imprisoned” since last year. The ACLJ represents Brunson, who has been falsely imprisoned without any evidence. There has yet to be any formal indictment, and we continue to advocate for his release. Additionally, the report states how religious minorities in Turkey were restricted from opening houses of worship or training clergy and from challenging lawsuits or land disputes. The report also states that “the government [of Turkey] continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities” and is prosecuting Christian individuals for “openly disrespecting the religious beliefs of a group.”
Furthermore, Christians in Sudan are in danger of government persecution and potential execution for their religious practices. The IRF Report “emphasized the government’s need to bring the country’s legal framework into compliance with its international human rights obligations.” It addresses several accounts of pastors imprisoned for the practice of their faith. The ACLJ aggressively advocated for the release of two pastors, Rev. Hassan Abduraheem and Rev. Kuwa Shamal, who were arrested and imprisoned in December 2015 for paying the medical expenses for a man beaten by the Sudanese government for a demonstration. The government declared it a national security crime to provide humanitarian aid to this individual, and arrested the pastors. The pastors were held for over a year in poor conditions with the threat of the death penalty. On May 11, 2017, the pastors were released from jail after we urged Sudan’s national leaders to meet their international legal obligations for religious freedom. It is crucial that the U.S. continue to urge Sudan end its stop its persistent persecution of Christians.
We at the ACLJ will continue to vigilantly fight to protect religious freedom across the globe. Despite the growing persecution, it is encouraging that the State Department publicly “demands standing up for the rights of the world’s most vulnerable populations” and illustrates the U.S. commitment to advance the protection of fundamental religious freedoms.
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