The United States issued its annual religious freedom report on Tuesday, slamming allies and foes alike for their shortcomings at a time when its own record has come under fire.
Launching the first report since President Donald Trump took office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took swipes at Bahrain, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey. The report does not look into policy in the United States, where Trump won office on a pledge to ban all Muslim immigration and is now battling U.S. courts for the right to ban arrivals from eight mainly-Muslim states.
But Tillerson—who gave a brief address to launch the report—insisted the administration will continue to promote religious freedom around the world as a “moral imperative” and a universal human right. “Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent,” he said. “Almost 80 percent of the global population lives 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 warned, in a brief speech at the State Department.
The 2016 report itself, which U.S. diplomats have been mandated by Congress to prepare, is not much changed from that of the year before; a dry but detailed breakdown of the state of play across the world. But Tillerson used his remarks and a preface to the report to draw attention to some particular offenders.
As expected, he repeated last year’s denunciation of the Islamic State group’s “genocide” against the Yazidi, Christian and Shia minorities in areas it holds or until recently held in Iraq and Syria. He again took the opportunity to criticize perennial U.S. foe Iran, noting that the Islamic republic has used “vague apostasy laws” to execute 20 members of religious minorities over the past year.
But he also complained about the behavior of some U.S. friends, such as NATO ally Turkey, where he said non-Sunni Muslims such as the Alevi are not protected by the state from “discrimination and violence.”
And he demanded Turkey release a U.S. citizen, evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been “wrongfully imprisoned” since last year on charges he belongs to the banned movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
America’s allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, were also in the firing line, despite Trump’s recent triumphant visit to Riyadh to salute their support in the battle against Iran and violent extremism. “We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens,” Tillerson said. Saudi Arabia bans non-Muslims from practicing religion in public and discriminates against Shias.
Pakistan, which does not even recognize the Ahmadi community as Muslim and imposes death sentences for blasphemy and apostasy, was also cited, as was China’s persecution of Falun Gong members and Tibetan Buddhists.
But Russia, while it has a critical chapter in the report itself, did not come up by name in Tillerson’s speech.
The United States Commission on International Freedom—an independent federal government body that advises the State Department—has urged that Russia be designated a “country of particular concern.” In April, the panel said Russia has “effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state” while seeking to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and framing innocent Muslims on terror charges.
Russia is not one of the 10 countries currently of “particular concern” and U.S. officials said Tillerson is not due to review these designations until another 90 days after Tuesday’s report was made public.
The 2016 report itself—while required under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act—does not bind the U.S. administration to act. But Ambassador Michael Kozak of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor told reporters that its data would inform policymakers as they make decisions on diplomatic outreach and refugee admissions.
Countries listed separately as being “of particular concern” in terms of religious freedoms can face sanctions, but Tillerson can also issue a waiver if he thinks it is in U.S. interests to give them a pass. Saudi Arabia, for example, faces no penalty for its hardline stance.