“The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday at the rollout of the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom around the world.
“I am making certain, and I will continue to, that religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”
Kerry also introduced Rabbi David Saperstein as the president’s nominee for the ambassador-at-large post.
Saperstein, described by Kerry as “one of America’s most compelling and committed voices on religion in public life,” was the inaugural chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where he served from 1999 to 2001, and is director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.
The position to which he has now been nominated was created under the same legislation that set up the USCIRF, an independent statutory watchdog, and seeks to make promotion of religious freedom a U.S. foreign policy priority – the 1999 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
The ambassador-at-large post has been vacant for more than half of Obama’s administration – 30 out of a total 66 months. Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook served from Apr. 2011 to Oct. 2013.
Kerry announced that one new country – Turkmenistan – was being added to list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious religious freedom violations.
The Muslim-majority Central Asian country of 5.1 million people joins eight other CPCs that have been designated as such since 2007 – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
Of Turkmenistan, Kerry cited reports that people are being “detained, beaten, and tortured because of their religious beliefs,” noted that the government had passed laws prohibiting the wearing of religious attire in public places or distribution of religious literature, and continued to imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection to military service.
The decision to add only Turkmenistan to the CPC list came despite recommendations by the USCIRF that an additional seven countries be named CPCs. They include countries where violations of religious freedom have made regular headlines over the past year, including:
--Iraq, where the resurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is posing what advocates fear is an existential threat to a long-endangered minority Christian community. “Christianity as we know it is being wiped out right before our very eyes in Iraq,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said on the House floor on Monday.
--Syria, where Christians have borne the brunt of the civil war, targeted by jihadists and at times caught in the crossfire between the regime and rebels. According to Open Doors, a religious freedom advocacy group, Syria also accounted for more Christians killed in 2013 than any other country – 1,213, followed by Nigeria (612), Pakistan (88) and Egypt (83).
--Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s deadly jihad targets, Christians in particular.
--Pakistan, where the government continues to enforce controversial blasphemy laws and laws discriminating against members of the Muslim Ahmadi community, as radical Muslims citing allegations of blasphemy kill with virtual impunity.
The administration’s decision, again, not to designate Pakistan is especially glaring: The USCIRF has urged CPC status for Pakistan every year since 2002, and in its own annual report released three months ago the commission identified Pakistan as the worst violator among those not currently on the blacklist.
In his comments Monday, Kerry mentioned Pakistan among several countries where abuses occurred last year, citing the killing of more than 500 Shi’ites in sectarian violence and the killing of 80 Christians in a church bombing last September.
“The Pakistani government has yet to take adequate steps to bring those responsible to justice,” he noted.
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski, who briefed media after Kerry departed, also cited the situation in Pakistan, where he said “violence targeted at members of religious minorities and human rights defenders underscored the government’s failure to provide adequate security.”
“Authorities continue to enforce blasphemy laws and laws designed to marginalize the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.”
Under the IRFA, CPC designation allows the administration to impose sanctions or take other measures against governments which either themselves violate citizens’ religious freedom, or allow non-state groups or other parties to do so.
In Pakistan’s case, the USCIRF and human rights advocates say the government does both.
Asked how the administration raises concerns over blasphemy laws with countries that are seen as allies, Malinowski replied, “We’ve absolutely raised blasphemy laws, including with Pakistan, in numerous diplomatic meetings in private.”
“We’ve asked countries that have such laws, which we consistently oppose – we believe that it is never okay to punish people for professing changing or talking to others about their religious beliefs – and we’ve certainly raised that with officials of numerous countries around the world,” he said.
The other three countries which the USCIRF has been urging the administration to designate as CPCs, without success, are Egypt, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
Vietnam’s communist government was designated a CPC from 2004 to 2006, when the Bush administration delisted it – against USCIRF advice – citing “significant improvement.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who last year introduced legislation calling on the secretary of state to re-designate Hanoi for “gross religious freedom violations,” expressed disappointment Monday that Vietnam remains off the list.
“One glaring omission from the State Department’s list is Vietnam, where those who practice religious freedom are severely persecuted,” Royce said, adding that on a trip to Vietnam he had “seen the extent to which the communist government of Vietnam will go to punish peaceful religious dissidents.”
Malinowski told reporters that Vietnamese “individuals in congregations of multiple faiths reported harassment, detentions, and surveillance throughout the year. That said, the Vietnamese government is making some progress on religious freedom, registering over 100 church congregations in 2013 and inviting the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit the country.”