Religious persecution a sad reality: State Department releases 2016 IRF report

August 17, 2017

Pastor Andrew Brunson remains wrongfully imprisoned in Turkey for over 300 days. More than a dozen Pakistanis are on death row or face life in prison for blasphemy. The government of Sudan persecutes clergy church members with arrests and demolishes churches. In Malaysia, Christian converts, Hindus, and believers in minority traditions of Islam (non-Sunni) face increased social hostilities and government restrictions as the tension grows between civil courts and sharia courts.

These are but a few tragic examples of persecution cited in the 2016 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Report, issued Tuesday by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In his remarks, Tillerson explained the U.S. government’s strategic interest in promoting religious freedom as a significant element within foreign policy:

“Almost 80 percent of the global population live 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.”

The preface of the report also explains the “United States promotes religious freedom as a moral imperative” and that “failure of governments to protect this right breeds instability, terrorism, and violence.”

What is the annual IRF Report?

As mandated by Congress through The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the State Department reports on religious persecution around the globe by documenting abuses by governments, terror groups, and individual actors. The 2016 report is lengthy, covering 199 countries and regions. A few items of particular interest from the report include ISIS, Malaysia, and North Korea:


Sec. Tillerson early in his remarks sought “To remove any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department” regarding genocide committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Said Tillerson, “the facts at hand lead to the conclusion ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.” According to the Iraq report, ISIS “pursued a campaign of violence against members of all faiths, but against non-Sunnis in particular… continued to commit individual and mass killings, and to engage in rape, kidnapping, random detentions and mass abductions, torture, abduction and forced conversion of non-Muslim male children, and the enslavement and sex trafficking of women and girls from minority religious communities.”

Senator James Lankford (OK) applauded the release of the 2016 report, emphasizing the importance “that our top diplomat clearly and unequivocally proclaim that religious freedom is a core American value and a universal human right.” Citing an op/ed he penned earlier this year, Lankford further encouraged the administration to confront the ISIS atrocities “through advocacy for religious freedom, the provision of humanitarian aid, the pursuit of justice against perpetrators, and assistance with economic revitalization.” To date, ISIS remains active in the region and no justice has yet been achieved on behalf of genocide victims and their families.


While there are some hopeful anecdotes from Malaysia (including one local mosque reportedly offering use of its parking lot to a neighboring Anglican church), the religious freedom situation there is tenuous. From the 2016 country report:

“Local human rights organizations and religious leaders stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited public protests against non-Sunni Muslim groups, some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized social media posts targeting Muslim and non-Muslim groups.”

The ERLC’s vice president for public policy, Travis Wussow, recently spent a week in Malaysia collaborating with advocates there. Follow ERLC’s Malaysia initiative at erlc.com/Malaysia and The Weekly for future developments.

North Korea

The State Department agrees with a United Nations’ report that concluded the situation in North Korea is “an almost complete denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” and that many cases “constituted crimes against humanity” committed by the government. Due to the extremely closed nature of the country, reports and data are often difficult to come by. Reports from defectors commonly indicated “religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society for fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.”

Sec. Tillerson thanked former Ambassador-at-large for IRF, Rabbi David Saperstein, for his contributions to the report. That ambassador position remains vacant since January, though President Trump has nominated Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. Gov. Brownback presently awaits confirmation by the Senate. The full 2016 report may be found here and the text of Secretary Tillerson’s remarks may be found here.

For more information about the structures within the U.S. government responsible, in varying ways, for promoting religious freedom around the globe, visit these links:

Matthew T. Hawkins

Matthew T. Hawkins is a former policy director of the  ERLC. He is presently pursuing a Ph.D. in public theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and serves as chair of The One America Movement, a nonprofit that desires to build a united American society by eliminating toxic polarization. More information … Read More