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U.S. Report Says IS, Non-State Groups Imperil Religious Liberties Around The Globe

Pakistani civil society activists hold portraits of Mashal Khan who was killed by a mob of his fellows students for alleged blasphemy in Abdul Wali Khan University in April.
Pakistani civil society activists hold portraits of Mashal Khan who was killed by a mob of his fellows students for alleged blasphemy in Abdul Wali Khan University in April.

The United States says the extremist group Islamic State (IS) continues to damage religious freedom by targeting members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death.

In the first annual International Religious Freedom Report since President Donald Trump took office in January, the State Department said on August 15 that such non-state groups imperiled religious liberties not only in the Middle East, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who released the report, said that IS, the only group singled out in the preface of the document, is "clearly responsible for genocide" against Yezidis, Christians, and Shi'a in areas it controlled. He also accused it of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

"Religious persecution and intolerance remain far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on, or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root," he said.

The report, which covers 199 countries and territories around the world for 2016, was little changed in tone from the previous year.

'Universal Human Right'

Tillerson, a former oil executive, has said several times since taking his portfolio that U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration would refocus on the security and prosperity of the American people, with less of an emphasis in promoting democratic values for their own sake.

But the first words in his preface to the report stated that religious freedom is "a cherished American value and a universal human right." He went on to say that the United States "promotes religious freedom as a moral imperative."

The protection of groups subject to violent extremism "is a human rights priority for the Trump administration," Tillerson also said.

The report notes that, in Russia and Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, have suffered numerous attacks on their freedom to worship.

"[Russian] government authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism," the report said. "The government also fined and issued deportation orders for a number of U.S. citizens for engaging in religious activity, in particular volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

The Russian Supreme Court ruled in April that the Jehovah's Witnesses were an extremist organization and prohibited them from operating in the country. The court upheld the ruling on appeal in July.

Orthodox 'Privileges'

Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country's four traditional religions, and smaller denominations frequently face discrimination.

Despite this guarantee, the State Department report said that the Russian government "continued to grant privileges to the [Russian Orthodox Church] not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions."

The report also chided Iran’s government for the continued use of anti-Semitic and anti-Baha’i rhetoric in official statements, as well as for promoting Holocaust denial.

Shi’ite religious leaders who did not support government policies “reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest,” according to the report.

It said the Iranian government "continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest" Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and “regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.”

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, so the government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to write the report, it noted.

Tillerson also warned that religious freedom is under attack in Pakistan, where more than two dozen are on death row or serving life imprisonment for blasphemy.

“It is my hope that the new Prime Minister [Shahid Khaqan Abbasi] government will promote interfaith harmony and protect the rights of religious minorities," he said.