WASHINGTON -- Despite decades of efforts to combat it, religious persecution continues to be a widespread problem, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In its annual report, released Monday, the independent, bipartisan agency accused 16 nations of engaging in or tolerating "particularly severe religious freedom violations."
The 16 countries with "systematic, ongoing and egregious" religious persecution include 10 already recognized as "countries of particular concern" by the U.S. State Department -- China, Pakistan, Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Eritrea and Burma, plus two former Soviet states: Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The commission called on the State Department to add six more nations to the list: Russia, Nigeria, Vietnam, Syria, Uzbekistan and the Central African Republic.
Twelve other countries also carried out or condoned "serious" violations of religious freedom, the commission said: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
Mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the commission has attempted ever since to focus attention on the importance of the issue.
The law created an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and aimed to "strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of" freedom of religious belief and practice.
Efforts to advance religious liberty face obstacles, the report noted.
"Despite two decades of tireless work to bring an end to religious-based discrimination, violence, and persecution, innumerable believers and nonbelievers across the globe continued in 2018 to experience manifold suffering due to their beliefs," the report stated.
In Burma, "widespread atrocities" and "widespread human rights abuses" have occurred, leading to a "catastrophic" human crisis, the report declared.
Roughly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the predominantly Buddhist country and now live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, the report stated.
The U.S. should gather evidence of crimes against humanity and genocide and present it to the International Court of Justice, the commission added.
In Burma, sometimes referred to as Myanmar, "victims of severe human rights and religious freedom violations have little hope for justice; this includes Rohingya and other Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus," it added.
In Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis have been targeted by "extremist groups." At least 40 people have been convicted of blasphemy and are serving life sentences or awaiting execution, the report noted.
In Saudi Arabia, the government "continues to use criminal charges of apostasy and blasphemy to suppress debate, silence dissidents, and restrict religious freedom," the commission stated.
The report was released days after the Sunni kingdom beheaded 37 people, most of them Shiites. Saudi officials accused those condemned of terrorism-related crimes -- allegations their defenders denied.
Amnesty International said those executed "were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards which relied on confessions extracted through torture."
In a news release Friday, commission Chairman Tenzin Dorjee said the deceased were singled out because of their "religious identity and peaceful activism."
In predominantly Christian Russia, the state targeted worshippers who do not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Jehovah's Witnesses have been banned from worshipping since 2017. Their kingdom halls have been confiscated; dozens of followers have been arrested or placed under house arrest. Many others have been restricted from traveling and are being investigated, the report stated.
Others facing persecution include members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, Scientologists and Baptists, the report claimed.
In many of the countries highlighted by the report, minority religions were targeted for abuse. China, however, cracked down on all faiths, the commission noted.
"Religious freedom conditions in China trended negative" last year, the report stated, as a result of passage of the country's new Regulations on Religious Affairs.
In force since Feb. 1, 2018, the new restrictions "effectively banned 'unauthorized' religious teachings and required religious groups to report any online activity," the report stated.
Although "religious freedom" is enshrined in China's constitution, the communist government seeks "to persecute all faiths" and is taking steps to "diminish and erase the independent practice of religion," the commission stated.
Persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims was especially severe, with 800,000 to 2 million or more Muslims reportedly detained, the commission said.
Hundreds of Protestant churches were raided or forced to close their doors. Nearly 1,000 practitioners of Falun Gong were also arrested, the report said.
Beijing's oppression is widespread, Commissioner Gary Bauer said Monday at the report's unveiling.
"They are equal opportunity persecutors," he said. "They go after anybody, any sect that might compete with the communist, atheistic government of China for the loyalty of its citizens."
The report called on the U.S. and the international community to "swiftly and resolutely sanction Chinese officials and agencies that have perpetrated or tolerated severe religious freedom violations."
The Capitol Hill event highlighting the report's findings Monday attracted commission members as well as politicians from both parties.
"You get the full spectrum," said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
"There are some things, even in Washington, that bring us together," said U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Mass.
A Section on 04/30/2019