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Explainer: State Department releases 2021 International Religious Freedom Report

International religious freedom

On June 2, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom released its 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. Each year, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) tasks the office with issuing a report to Congress exploring the global state of religious freedom. The recommendations in the State Department’s report “describe the status of religious freedom, government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies promoting religious freedom in nearly every country and territory throughout the world.”

Embassies, civil society organizations, and local clergy identify incidents that infringe on religious freedoms. Then, they partner with the State Department to track the efficacy of American efforts to restore religious freedom and human dignity. Through this process, the Office of International Religious Freedom collates all data into a massive report that gauges the status of religious freedom in each nation.

Major themes of the report

Secretary of State Antony Blinken reinforced America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring religious freedom for people of all faiths. Protecting America’s “first freedom” must remain a “vital foreign policy priority,” Blinken said. The secretary called upon “all societies” to “do more to address rising forms of hate.”

Rashad Hussain, the ambassador at-large for International Religious Freedom, noted three recurring themes throughout the report. First, far too many governments use discriminatory laws to oppress their own people. For example, China continues to commit genocide against the Uyghur people, while Burma ruthlessly persecutes the Rohingya people, and the Taliban oppresses Afghan women as second-class citizens. 

Additionally, rising cultural intolerance and acts of hatred are fueling conflict around the world. Mobs in nations like India burned down churches and mosques, often with social media serving as an incubator for these incidents of hate speech and threats of violence. 

Finally, Hussain celebrated the collaboration between civil society and government, a partnership that brings “essential” progress to the fight to secure international religious freedom. Hussain noted that “religion can be such a powerful force for good,” and the United States will seek to encourage positive religious action around the globe.

Countries of concern

The report details the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to heavily restrict religious expression. In addition to its aggressive persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the government “imprisoned about 3,000 people for exercising their right to freedom of religion” last year. The party “continued its multiyear campaign of ‘Sinicization’ to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine” by compelling clergy attendance at political indoctrination sessions and closely monitoring sermon content for anti-CCP rhetoric. Christians, Muslims, and Falun Gong practitioners reported housing and employment discrimination, citing increased anti-religious cultural sentiments reflected in strict government laws.

The report also notes that following the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan last summer, they have resumed enforcing strict Sharia law and persecuting religious minorities, forcing many Afghan Shia Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Hindus to worship privately to avoid persecution. Christian converts and other religious minorities regularly faced death threats and increased cultural hostilities. ISIS-K and other nongovernmental terror groups claimed responsibility for dozens of mosque bombings and suicide attacks last year, killing hundreds of Shia Hazara Muslims.

Since a military coup in February, the new Burmese government has committed “an alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses.” The State Department reports that regime military forces have bombed Christian churches and killed pastors. The regime has continued their crusade against the Muslim Rohingya people, imprisoning over 144,000 in camps last year. The report notes that “Rohingya continued to be perceived as foreigners, irrespective of their citizenship status, and as members of a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.” The State Department is hopeful, though, that pro-democracy and religious freedom efforts continue to gain ground in Burmese culture and government.

In India, some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) report that “the government failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities.” The report expresses concern over a rapid increase in violent attacks against Christians, as state police regularly ignored official complaints of violence. Hindu “cow vigilantes” killed Muslims on charges of smuggling cattle, while extremist leaders faced little government opposition for calling to “wage a war against Muslims.” Most religiously-motivated violence is performed by mobs and nongovernmental terror groups, but American officials continue to pressure the Indian government to protect the rights of religious minorities and discourage religious violence.

How is the ERLC involved?

The ERLC affirms Ambassador Hussain’s assessment that “no community is immune from these abuses,” and we will continue advocating for religious freedom for all people everywhere. Over the past several years, the ERLC has advocated extensively for Uyghurs and raised awareness for the plight of other persecuted minorities. The ERLC has also partnered with diverse coalitions to fight against blasphemy laws, stem the rise of anti-Semitism, and aid the resettelement of persecuted refugees. We are dedicated to advocating for the vulnerable and oppressed around the world and to fighting for the sacred rights of our persecuted brothers and sisters.

International religious freedom


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