By / Jun 8

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.

By / Jul 14

With the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others, conversations of racial reconciliation, systemic racism, and police reform have dominated our country’s headlines. These are vitally important conversations. But in the midst of them, we shouldn’t forget about the ongoing effects of COVID-19, particularly its impact on communities of color.

Minority populations have contracted COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. While African Americans account for roughly 13% of the U.S. population, they comprise about 33% of COVID-19 cases. Additionally, Latinos, the single largest minority ethnic group in America, are 20% more likely to contract COVID-19 than their white counterparts. Furthermore, other racial and ethnic minority groups experience outsized impacts of the virus. 

Obviously, COVID-19 does not discriminate based on ethnicity. But the coronavirus has had an immense effect on the health of ethnic minorities in the United States, exposing a deep imbalance in our healthcare system. 

COVID-19’s main form of transmission is person-to-person contact. While the primary solution to slowing the spread of the virus seems simple—just maintain social distance—it is much easier for some than others. Racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in densely populated areas—a contributing factor being systemic racism in public residential housing systems. In addition, racial and ethnic minority families are more likely to live in multigenerational households. These households increase the possibility of exposure to a virus spread by proximity to older, at-risk generations. Additionally, racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live a farther distance from a grocery store or doctor. This can significantly reduce access to necessary supplies for daily life and require greater contact with other individuals and public transit. 

People of racial and ethnic minorities are also less likely to have the ability to telecommute to their jobs as compared to their white neighbors. This significantly increases exposure to COVID-19 due to regularly interacting with others while at work. Latinos and African Americans comprise nearly 25% of service industry jobs, whereas only 16% of non-hispanic whites hold these same jobs. By virtue of these jobs, people of racial and ethnic minorities are placed at a significant disadvantage in maintaining social distancing guidelines. 

It is our calling as citizens of heaven and the United States to fight for truth, justice, righteousness, and peace, to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.

These jobs also have ramifications for health insurance. Latinos are nearly three times less likely to carry health insurance, and African Americans are nearly two times as likely to not carry health insurance as compared to their white counterparts. The lack of insurance limits doctor visits, prescribed medicine, as well as preventative health treatments. And while any of these individual factors can be detrimental, in conjunction they can become deadly.

It is easy to see how these disparities would contribute to other health problems. And the reality is that this imbalance is not limited to COVID-19. To learn more about this issue, see this article by Grace Liu published earlier this year. 

The deaths of Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd sparked massive protests and calls for reform. But we need to recognize that those injustices are part of the larger picture of racial inequality and centuries of injustice in America. Our country has been plagued by racism since its founding, and we can still see results of it today. The healthcare inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis are just one example.

How can the local church help? 

The responsibility of caring for the community ought to be found in the local church body. We know the importance of serving the sick (Jam. 5), serving those in need (1 John 3:17-18), and caring for the vulnerable because every human being is made in the image of God. 

1. Be in prayer: First and foremost, we should always be in prayer. We can pray that God would establish the works of our hands (Psa. 90:17) and that he would show favor to those who are working toward justice and peace. In addition, we should pray specifically for local law enforcement officers, elected officials, and police chiefs. And, we can pray for vulnerable populations: local homeless shelters, the mentally ill, essential workers, and those without health insurance. 

2. Give generously: During this time of economic hardship, many are struggling to make ends meet. For those of us who are able to work from home or are still seeing steady paychecks, we can be generous with our money. We can also donate food or clothing, give of our time to babysit for essential workers, volunteer to help clean the sanctuary before and after church services, or give up your comfort by wearing a mask, which can help prevent the spread of the virus to at-risk populations. 

3. Learn from your neighbors: Finally, we can spend time learning about the experiences of ethnic minorities in our communities. We can read books and articles from Black authors and research the history of racism and how it was codified into law. We should also celebrate the American heroes who worked toward justice in our country and study how they did it. And we can reflect on the benefits we may have received, but have previously taken for granted, humble ourselves, and listen to those who are hurting.

We cannot settle for anything less than justice for all in our country. It is our calling as citizens of heaven and the United States to fight for truth, justice, righteousness, and peace, to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.

ERLC intern Jackson McNeece contributed to this article

By / Feb 4

“We believe it is possible to heal this illness from the pharmacy of the sacred law of Islam.” These words, spoken by Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, were, for me, the most memorable of the entire Marrakesh Declaration conference last week. In context, the “illness” Shaykh Bin Bayyah spoke of is the treatment of religious minorities in majority-Muslim societies.

On January 25-26, 2016, several hundred Muslim muftis, imams, shaykhs, scholars, legal experts, politicians and diplomats gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, for the purpose of drafting and issuing a declaration defining the rights of non-Muslims living in majority-Muslim countries. The conference was hosted by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies under the patronage of King Mohammed VI of Morocco. The gathering included religious leaders and government officials from nearly every country with a significant Muslim population, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Iran to to the United States to Pakistan to Chechnya to Russia to Bangladesh. The geographical and theological diversity was remarkable.

I had the honor of attending the conference as a part of a small delegation of non-Muslim religious leaders that included Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Yezidis, Sabians and others. We were invited to observe the proceedings and provide commentary on the draft and final declaration that was issued by the conference.

The conference itself, however, was a dialogue within the Muslim community about the treatment of minority religious communities. In a fundamental way, we were not the audience for the conference: Muslim speakers were speaking to a Muslim audience about the demands of Islamic law for the treatment of minorities.

The gathering was a truly historic event—no one I spoke to at the conference was aware of another such gathering to address this issue, perhaps even in the history of Islam. The fact that a declaration was agreed upon at all, given the diversity of the leaders present, is a significant achievement.

Treatment for religious minorities under Islamic law

Shaykh Bin Bayyah laid out the theological framework and foundation for the conference. This foundation was based on the Charter of Medina, which according to Islamic tradition was a peace treaty drafted by the Prophet Muhammad to establish peace among the religiously diverse tribes living and around Medina.

From the history of the Charter of Medina and Islamic law, Shaykh Bin Bayyah articulated 10 foundational values of Islam for “dealing with others.” These 10 values are: kindness, honor, cooperation, reconciliation, human fraternity, wisdom, commonwealth, justice, mercy and peace. Shaykh Bin Bayyah’s presentation grounded these principles in human dignity and equality.

It is worth noting that the history of the Charter of Medina is a bloody one and isn’t exactly an example of peaceful coexistence and tranquility. Historians differ on whether the contract can be construed as a social contract or as a unilateral proclamation by Muhammad. Nevertheless, the Charter of Medina did provide a framework for a religiously diverse community to live side by side in relative equality.

In any event, there was broad consensus, at least in principle, among the scholars at the conference that these 10 values were indeed deeply rooted in Islamic law and tradition and that this Islamic tradition demands equal treatment of religious minorities.

The Marrakesh Declaration

The document that emerged from several days of marathon drafting sessions and negotiating on specific wordings is available online in English translation. Sections are included below, but the document is worth reading and considering in full.

The Declaration centers on the idea of “constitutional contractual citizenship” and articulates a number of fundamental rights including freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense, and “principles of justice and equality before the law.” The Declaration also affirms the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that Islamic law is consistent with these declarations.

The Declaration also issues seven calls to action. The legacy of this effort will depend entirely on the extent to which these calls to action are implemented, not just in one place, but in every country that signed on to the Declaration. The calls to action are as follows:

Call upon Muslim scholars and intellectuals around the world to develop a jurisprudence of the concept of “citizenship” which is inclusive of diverse groups. Such jurisprudence shall be rooted in Islamic tradition and principles and mindful of global changes.

Urge Muslim educational institutions and authorities to conduct a courageous review of educational curricula that addresses honestly and effectively any material that instigates aggression and extremism, leads to war and chaos, and results in the destruction of our shared societies;

Call upon politicians and decision makers to take the political and legal steps necessary to establish a constitutional contractual relationship among its citizens, and to support all formulations and initiatives that aim to fortify relations and understanding among the various religious groups in the Muslim World;

Call upon the educated, artistic and creative members of our societies, as well as organizations of civil society, to establish a broad movement for the just treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries and to raise awareness as to their rights, and to work together to ensure the success of these efforts.

Call upon the various religious groups bound by the same national fabric to address their mutual state of selective amnesia that blocks memories of centuries of joint and shared living on the same land; we call upon them to rebuild the past by reviving this tradition of conviviality, and restoring our shared trust that has been eroded by extremists using acts of terror and aggression;

Call upon representatives of the various religions, sects and denominations to confront all forms of religious bigotry, vilification and denigration of what people hold sacred, as well as all speech that promotes hatred and bigotry;

Affirm that it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

What will the Marrakesh Declaration mean?

Will the Marrakesh Declaration be remembered as a flash in the pan or a significant turning point in the Middle East? Only time will tell. The Declaration itself is an important achievement and milestone, but the heavy lifting has barely begun. A declaration after all, is just talk. Would we celebrate the Federalist Papers without the U.S. Constitution?

The organizers of the conference are serious and committed to prioritizing this issue. Whether the countries represented by the other 300 attendees at the conference will also make these issues a priority in their own countries remains to be seen.

To the extent that the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that there is one, the conference was a good half step. The Declaration itself is a powerful statement. But the speeches delivered by many of the delegates stopped short of acknowledgment of the seriousness of the issue today. An Iranian representative, for instance, held up Iran's experience of pluralism with Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, failing to acknowledge that until two weeks ago, a Christian pastor had been imprisoned for four years or that the Baha’is suffer brutal oppression even today in Iran. A Saudi representative focused on the treatment of Muslims in non-Muslim countries, despite the fact that the West has freely allowed the construction of hundreds of Salafi mosques, yet there is not a single church in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, Shaykh Bin Bayyah expressed the situation religious minorities find themselves today in terms of a “disease” or an “illness.” I am hopeful that his assessment was heard and will be recognized in the years to come.

The response from the international community has been mixed. Some are hopeful that the conference will lead to real action. Others have argued that history gives us little reason to have hope that the declaration will lead anywhere.

What I will say is that after attending this conference, I am hopeful, even optimistic. It was a powerful thing to experience the solidarity of hundreds of Muslim leaders that are not happy about the way my community has been treated in the Middle East. The organizers of the conference hosted a serious, sincere effort to grapple with some of the most serious issues facing Islam today. There was a genuine spirit of collaboration and a willingness to work together to make the lives of religious minorities better. My prayers are with these men and women as they work within their own community for a solution. The Christian community in the region needs one desperately.