The good, the bad and the ugly in the State Department’s new religious freedom report
China, Russia and Afghanistan were among the countries called out in the State Department’s report
The State Department’s latest report on religious freedom conditions around the world offers some reasons to hope a peaceful world is possible — but also plenty of reasons to despair. As people of faith in some countries gain legal protections and acceptance, believers elsewhere continue to be bullied, arrested and even put to death.
“In many parts of the world, governments are failing to respect their citizens’ basic rights,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a June 2 press conference tied to the report’s release.
The report, which outlines the conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories in 2021, shows that no faith group is safe from targeted discrimination and attacks, said Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, at the event.
“From Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; Jews in Europe; Bahais in Iran; Christians in North Korea, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia; Muslims in Burma and China; Catholics in Nicaragua; and atheists and humanists around the world, no community has been immune from these abuses,” he said.
Both Blinken and Hussain highlighted some bright spots, as well, noting that countries like Morocco and Taiwan show progress is possible in the realm of religious freedom.
In Morocco, which is officially an Islamic country, the government set aside resources to renovate and protect Jewish heritage sites, including synagogues and cemeteries. In Taiwan, labor officials are working to ensure that domestic workers have to ability to take a day off each week to attend religious services.
“This report is about spreading that kind of progress to other parts of the world,” Blinken said.
In China and Myanmar, government leaders have committed genocide against Muslims and other minority groups, they said. In Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban has sent Christians and others into hiding.
And in Russia, officials were interfering with citizens’ ability to freely live out their beliefs even before leaders used false faith-related claims to justify invading Ukraine, Hussain said.
“Russia has doubled down on its violations of religious freedom rather than reverse course,” he said.
These extreme examples show just how deadly religious persecution can be, but they don’t tell the whole story of faith-based violence around the world, according to human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab, who wrote a column on the new report for Forbes.
“The IRF report is full of other violations that cannot escape our attention,” she said. “In Pakistan, at least 16 individuals accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death in 2021. In Eritrea, only four religious groups are permitted to practice their faith freely.”
Taken as a whole, the report shows “we have more work to do,” said Blinken on Twitter.
While the report’s findings may leave you feeling hopeless, Hussain urged people to trust that religious freedom advocacy can and does make a difference.
“Change is only possible with the hard work of the groups and individuals dedicated to fighting for these rights,” he said during the press conference.
He added that modern communication tools make it easier than ever to “keep individuals informed” about potential solutions and “shed light on abuses taking place.”
The report was compiled with help from government officials, journalists, scholars, human rights advocates and people of faith around the world. The State Department has been required to submit such a document to Congress each year since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.
“At its core, our work is about ensuring that all people have the freedom to pursue the spiritual tradition that most adds meaning to their time on earth. ... That’s the progress that this report hopes to create,” Blinken said.