The United States says religious persecution continues to be widespread around the globe as it unveiled its annual report on religious freedom, with violations cited in Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, among other countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report "is critical to our mission to defend religious liberty," as he presided over the release of the report at the U.S. State Department in Washington on May 29.
The United States remains "committed to protecting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future," Pompeo said, noting that the report "documents across 200 countries and territories reports of violations and abuses committed by governments, terrorist groups, and individuals so that we may work together to solve them."
In Russia, the report notes that, although the constitution provides for religious freedom and the right to worship and profess one's religion, "the government prosecuted individuals of many denominations for unauthorized missionary activity under the amendments to antiterrorism laws passed in 2016, known as the Yarovaya Package."
The report singles out the situation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose activity was criminalized, after the Supreme Court ruled in April 2017 that the sect was an extremist organization and prohibited them from operating in the country. The court upheld the ruling on appeal in July.
The sect has been operating in Russia and across the former Soviet Union since the early 1990s and claims some 170,000 adherents in Russia.
The report notes that, although "there were fewer instances of violence based on religious identity than in prior years,” there were also reports of physical assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, as well as other attacks on individuals, "possibly based on both their ethnicity and religion."
In Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, “Russia-led forces continued to control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and to detain and imprison religious leaders,” said the report, noting that a military tribunal in Donetsk “sentenced an academic specializing in religious studies to 32 months in prison.” The academic was later released in a prisoner exchange with the Ukrainian government.
In Iran, which the United States in 1999 designated as a Country Of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the penal code provides for the death sentence for "proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (enmity against God) and sabb al-nabi (insulting the prophet)," the report notes.
Iran continued to execute people charged with enmity against God, "including four prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison in December 20, and four men charged with waging 'war on God' in Kerman Province in September ," the report said, adding that authorities "continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Bahai's, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities."
In Afghanistan, "conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property," the report says.
According to the Afghan Supreme Court, the Baha'i faith "is a form of blasphemy and is punishable by death. However, there were no reported prosecutions for apostasy or blasphemy," the report noted.
The Afghan branch of the Islamic State group and the Taliban "continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities."
Neighboring Pakistan continued to enforce blasphemy laws, "whose punishment ranges from life in prison to the death sentence for a range of charges, including 'defiling the Prophet Muhammad.'"
The report says that at least 50 individuals were imprisoned on blasphemy charges,"at least 17 of whom had received death sentences."
The document singles out an incident in April 2017, when a mob shot and beat to death student Mashal Khan at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, "following an accusation of blasphemy later deemed by investigators to be false, which prompted widespread condemnation in the country."