The State Department last report on the conditions of religious freedom around the world offers reason to hope that a peaceful world is possible – but also many reasons to despair. While people of faith in some countries are gaining legal protections and acceptance, believers elsewhere continue to be intimidated, arrested and even put to death.
“In many parts of the world, governments are failing to respect the basic rights of their citizens,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a June 2 conference. press conference linked to the publication of the report.
The report, which describes conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories in 2021, shows that no religious group is immune to discrimination and targeted attacks, said Rashad Hussain, U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, at the event.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; Jews in Europe; Bahais in Iran; Christians in North Korea, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia; Muslims in Burma and China; Catholics in Nicaragua; and atheists and humanists everywhere, no community has been immune to this abuse,” he said.
Blinken and Hussain also highlighted some positives, noting that countries like Morocco and Taiwan show that progress is possible in the area of religious freedom.
In Morocco, which is officially an Islamic country, the government has earmarked resources to renovate and protect Jewish heritage sites, including synagogues and cemeteries. In Taiwanlabor officials ensure that domestic workers have the opportunity to take one day off each week to attend religious services.
“This report aims to spread that kind of progress to other parts of the world,” Blinken said.
In China and Myanmar, government leaders have committed genocide against Muslims and other minority groups, they said. In Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban has sent Christians and others underground.
And in Russia, authorities were interfering with citizens’ ability to freely live out their beliefs even before leaders used false religious claims to justify invading Ukraine, Hussain said.
“Russia has doubled down on its religious freedom violations rather than backtracking,” he said.
These extreme examples show how deadly religious persecution can be, but they don’t tell the whole story of faith-based violence around the world, according to human rights lawyer Ewelina Ochab, who wrote a column on the new report for Forbes.
“The IRF report is full of other violations that cannot escape our notice,” she said. “In Pakistan, at least 16 people accused of blasphemy have been sentenced to death in 2021. In Eritrea, only four religious groups are allowed to freely practice their faith.
Taken as a whole, the report shows that “we still have work to do,” Blinken said on Twitter.
While the report’s findings may leave you hopeless, Hussain urged people to believe that advocating for religious freedom can and does make a difference.
“Change is only possible with the hard work of groups and individuals who are dedicated to fighting for these rights,” he said at the press conference.
He added that modern communication tools make it easier than ever to “keep individuals informed” of potential solutions and to “shed light on abuses that are occurring”.
The report was compiled with the help of government officials, journalists, academics, human rights defenders and believers from around the world. The State Department has been required to submit such a document to Congress every year since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998.
“At its core, our job is to ensure that all people have the freedom to pursue the spiritual tradition that adds the most meaning to their time on earth. … This is the progress this report hopes to create,” Blinken said.