Rep. Smith on the Release of the State Dept.’s Int’l Religious Freedom Report
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights and Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, welcomed today’s release of the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.
“The State Department’s annual report on religious freedom is critical for the shaping of U.S. policy and priorities,” said Smith, author of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016, which gave the State Department expanded authority and more tools to promote religious freedom as an internationally recognized human right. “I welcome the 2018 report’s release and thank Ambassador Sam Brownback for a comprehensive accounting of what people of faith suffer at the hands of governments around the world. This data should be cited over and over again as we work to push governments to respect the rights of their own people instead of persecuting citizens because of their religious beliefs.
“Religious freedom is under attack around the world. There should be no surprise that the worst violators of religious freedom are also the biggest challenges to the United States and democracy,” Smith said. “In our own Constitution, the Bill of Rights lists freedom of religion as the ‘first freedom’ in the First Amendment. Freedom of religion is a tenet of freedom anywhere.”
Congressman Smith, who is also the author of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, signed by the President last year, underscored key findings of the report and reiterated the need to take more direct action on promoting religious freedom and protecting victims in numerous countries, including:
In an 87-page section on China, the report states that: “The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests… . There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.”
Smith said, “In what can only be viewed as a ramped up assault against its Muslim communities, the report states that numerous media and private organizations estimate that over the past two years the Chinese government detained between 800,000 and two million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and people from other Muslim groups, and subjected them to horrors that include forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, or lengthy detention without trial. They are targeted solely because of their religious and ethnic background. The report also recounted deaths, detentions, and disappearances of Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and members of Falun Gong.”
The report states that in Vietnam: “Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities… . … reports of severe harassment of religious adherents by authorities.”
Smith, noting persecution of Catholics, Protestant, Buddhists, Cao Dai adherents and others, said, “People of faith in Vietnam and their leaders, especially those without official government recognition or registration, reported significant government harassment. The State Department cited physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and the taking or destruction of property as depressingly routine events in Communist Vietnam.”
The new report states that in Syria “ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution. It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and a revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam.” It notes that “Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups. Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.”
Smith said, “The report states that while ISIS has been forced out of most of the areas it had captured and dominated, it continues to enslave thousands of Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked as commodities to Syria. Tragically, these suffering victims were sold or distributed to ISIS members as ‘spoils of war.’ Though many Yezidi women were freed from their bondage by coalition forces, thousands remain missing. Christians and other religious minorities also suffered greatly.”
The 2018 report’s section on Iran stated in part that: “The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing… . According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.
Smith said, “Once again, the Iranian government is among the worst offenders in the world, denying its own citizens the basic right to practice their religious beliefs. Human rights groups and Christian organizations report that Iranian authorities arrested Christians, including those worshipping in private homes, on charges of supporting and accepting assistance from ‘enemy’ countries. The report states that authorities subjected many arrested Christians to extreme physical and psychological abuse, included beatings and solitary confinement.”
Smith has invited Ambassador Brownback to testify on the report’s conclusions and recommendations at a hearing to be convened by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the persecution of Christians set for June 27, 2019.