If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Gov. Sam Brownback will start his time as ambassador in a world where experts say religious freedom is deteriorating.
“The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,” stated the 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “The blatant assaults have become so frightening — attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship — that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”
The ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom heads the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom. The ambassador will also serve as an ex-officio member of USCIRF, which is independent from the Office of International Religious Freedom.
More countries are appointing diplomats to promote freedom of religion, Ahmed Shaheed, the independent expert on freedom of religion or belief appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, wrote in an email interview.
The United States ambassador “enjoys the status of the informal ‘dean’ of this growing diplomatic community and is well placed to take the lead in building coalitions and engaging constructively with critics,” Shaheed said.
A widespread issue
After the Department of State publishes its own annual report on International Religious Freedom, the secretary of state designates countries “of particular concern” and notifies Congress. These countries are those that “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” In some cases, economic measures may be imposed against those countries.
Last year’s countries of particular concern were Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Not only do religious freedom violations exist in many parts of the world, but they also affect people of many different faiths.
Christians are harassed in more countries than any other religious group, but that’s largely due to Christians being more numerous than any other religious group, according to Pew Research Center. While 78 percent of Christians in 2015 lived in places where Christians were harassed, 99 percent of Jews and Hindus and 97 percent of Muslims lived in countries where members of their groups were harassed.
“The most egregious violations occur in conflict situations or in failing states, where armed groups carry out large-scale violations, including genocide and crimes against humanity, with impunity,” Shaheed said. “At the same time, there are many secular contexts in which collective manifestation of religious hatred and violence continue to erupt in the name of religion.”
Even in democracies, “tribalism” and “violent extremism” have caused increasing intolerance against religious minorities such as Jews and Muslims, Shaheed said.
Shaheed said that in addition to addressing specific countries, “broad global and regional trends must also be monitored.”
Regions of the world
The list of countries Brownback may have to address as ambassador could be longer than the State Department’s countries of particular concern.
In the U.S. Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote a preface that zeroed in on ISIS’ “brutal treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East,” mentioning how ISIS has targeted Yazidi Christians, Shia Muslims and in some cases, Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.
“The protection of these groups – and others who are targets of violent extremism – remains a human rights priority for the Trump Administration,” Tillerson wrote.
The Rev. Nathan Walker, executive director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C., said the genocide of Yazidi Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria is “the most pressing human rights issue of our time.”
There are also state actors such as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria who violate religious freedoms in the Middle East, according to USCIRF’s report.
Kristin Wright, director of advocacy for Open Doors USA, said Nigeria should also be a priority for Brownback.
In Africa’s most populous country, Christians and Muslims go through “horrific” persecution, she said.
In addition to religious repression from non-state actors such as Boko Haram, the Nigerian government represses the Shi’a Islamic Movement of Nigeria and there is violence between Muslim herders and Christian farmers, according to USCIRF.
The USCIRF’s annual report, which is separate from the one produced by the Department of State, listed Russia as a country “of particular concern” for the first time this year. Reasons for Russia’s addition to the USCIRF list included the Russian Supreme Court banning the existence of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.
“Policies, ranging from administrative harassment to arbitrary imprisonment to extrajudicial killing, are implemented in a fashion that is systematic, ongoing, and egregious,” reads the USCIRF report. Muslims have also been tried on fabricated charges related to their religion, and people have been arrested due to being suspected of “nontraditional” Islam. Russian actions in Crimea and in Ukraine were also noted.
Ambassador Michael Kozak of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said in an August teleconference that there is a “strong national interest” in protecting religious liberty internationally.
“When we see serious abuses of people’s basic rights, that correlates very often and very closely with instability and unrest and warfare and murder around the world,” Kozak said. “And so if you can take care of these problems or make improvements, give people hope that they can practice their own faiths without interruption, you reduce the chances of civil wars breaking out and terrorist recruitment and that kind of thing.”