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Religious freedom experts hopeful that Trump administration will stand up against persecution

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Sergei Supinski | AFP
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Panel cites Russia as “country of particular concern,” includes non-state actors such as ISIS

Two veterans in the fight for international religious freedom expressed confidence that the Trump administration is serious about that issue and will take steps to defend religious liberty in some of the most troubled spots around the world.

Former Congressman Frank R. Wolf, who represented Virginia’s 10th Congressional District from 1981 until his retirement in 2015 and became known for his human rights advocacy in China, Sudan, Iran and other countries, said in an interview that in spite of key religious liberty positions not yet filled in the State Department, he’s been encouraged by signs he’s gotten from President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“I know Mike Pence is interested in these issues,” Wolf said Monday, based on conversations he’s had with the former governor of Indiana. And, when Wolf’s religious freedom advocacy organization, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, was trying to bring an Iraqi Catholic nun serving displaced Christians in northern Iraq into the US to testify in Congress, Trump tweeted about the State Department process “blocking her visa.” Sister Diana Momeka finally did obtain a visa and testified in Congress.

Both Wolf and Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, noted that the State Department position of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is yet to be filled by the new president. But Shea said she is confident Trump won’t be “any slower” than his predecessor in appointing someone. President Barack Obama nominated Suzan Johnson Cook to the post 17 months into his presidency.

“I’m still encouraged by President Trump’s statements about the importance of religion, about the persecution of Christians. He does understand that,” Shea said in an interview Monday. “I am encouraged by his identifying the problem, and his apparent personal passion for it. … I think he does see the value of religious freedom and cares about persecution issues. And defeating ISIS is essential to that. But it does not ensure survival of religious communities in the Middle East because they are so shattered by what has happened to them that they need continuing help until they can get their lives restored.”

Shea expressed disappointment that a new report from a body she used to serve on, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “upgraded” Iraq in its assessment of the current global state of religious freedom. The country has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department in the past, indicating that it systematically violated religious freedom. USCIRF has now recommended that it be designated a “Tier 2” country since it has shown “improvements in religious freedom conditions.” The designations are provided for under the International Religious Freedom Act.

“I’m shocked to see that Iraq was made Tier 2 because the government of Baghdad has all but abandoned the small religious groups, such as Christians,” Shea said. “It hasn’t given them much help at all as they’ve faced, and continue to face, genocide.”

Even now, she said, when land in Baghdad that belongs to Christians has been taken over, the government has approved of the sales of that land.

Nevertheless, the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations, the new report states. Attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents and the destruction of places of worship are the most blatant examples from around the globe over the past year, but there are many more subtle attacks on religious freedom than these headline-grabbing atrocities. Those include activity by some governments or members of the UN Security Council, says the report. These more subtle attacks include Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and Russia’s recent banning of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In fact, the Commission is recommending for the first time that the State Department designate Russia as a CPC. Russia is criticized for not only exercising repressive measures within its own territory but also for its activities in neighboring states it has either invaded or occupied.

In the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, for example, which Russia has occupied since 2014, authorities have “coopted the spiritual life of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority and arrested or driven into exile its community representatives,” the report says. “And in the Russian-occupied para-states of eastern Ukraine, religious freedom is at the whim of armed militias not beholden to any legal authority.”

As for domestic religious policy, the report explains:

The Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political stability, an approach inherited from the Soviet period. It maintains and frequently updates laws that restrict religious freedom, including a 1997 religion law and a much-amended 2002 law on combating extremism. The Russian religion law sets strict registration requirements on religious groups and empowers state officials to impede their activity. The religion law’s preface, which is not legally binding, singles out Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and especially Orthodox Christianity as the country’s four traditional religions. Religious groups not affiliated with state-controlled organizations are treated with suspicion. Over time, the Russian government has come to treat the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (MPROC) as a de facto state church, strongly favoring it in various areas of state sponsorship, including subsidies, the education system, and military chaplaincies; this favoritism has fostered a climate of hostility toward other religions.

The report explains that the anti-extremism law “lacks a clear definition of extremism and the use or advocacy of violence is not necessary for activity to be classified as extremist.”

Writing before Russia’s Supreme Court April 20 granted the country’s Ministry of Justice request to designate the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in St. Petersburg as extremist, USCIRF predicted, “If granted, this designation would mark the first time that Russia has banned a centralized religious organization, and would effectively criminalize all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activity nationwide.”

The report also focuses on Russia’s persecution of Muslims who follow anything except what authorities deem “traditional Islam.” Salafists and devotees of Turkish Islamic revivalist theologian Said Nursi are treated harshly, for example. In Chechnya, Moscow-installed leader Ramzan Kadyrov oversees a private army “that engages in mass violations of human rights, conducts collective reprisals against the families of suspects, and suppresses all dissent.”

Kadyrov, who is implicated in several of the most notorious political assassinations of the post-Soviet era, also enforces his own views of Islam, under which women must wear Islamic dress and may be forced into illegal polygamous marriages.

Russia also came under fire for the so-called Yarovaya law from 2016, which defines forbidden “missionary activities” to include preaching, praying, disseminating religious materials and answering questions about religion outside of officially designated sites.

“With no independent judiciary in Russia, any religious speech or activity not explicitly sanctioned by the authorities now has the potential to be criminalized, depending on the whims of local law enforcement and prosecutors,” the report delineates. “By the need of the reporting period, at least 53 individuals or organizations had been prosecuted, of which 43 were non-Orthodox Christian groups.

For the first time, in addition to Countries of Particular Concern, USCIRF also recommends certain “Entities of Particular Concern,” a designation that was established by the 2016 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. It applies to non-state actors that control territory and have significant political control within countries.

“State-sponsored or condoned oppression of the freedom of religion or belief is only part of the challenge,” the report says. “Non-state actors represent a less official yet no less virulent threat to such freedoms.”

USCIRF recommended that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabaab in Somalia be so designated.

The Frank Wolf Act also requires that USCIRF make available online a list of persons believed to be imprisoned, detained or placed under house arrest for their religious activities, religious freedom advocacy or efforts to protect and advance the universally recognized right to the freedom of religion.

Wolf, who in his final year in Congress introduced a bill to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as an independent federal government advisory body, said Monday, “They’re doing a good thing on the prisoners of conscience list. That had always been important in previous years. It had fallen into disuse, but through the 80s ad 90s, when Members of Congress and officials and others would travel to a particular country, they would take that list with them and they would at the beginning of all meetings” mention names on the list.

“We had a hearing a couple of years ago, where [Soviet refusenik Natan] Sharansky said that his life actually got better when people raised his case, even to the point that he got more food in prison,” Wolf said. “I talked to a dissident once in China, who said every time someone raised his case when he was in prison, the warden said ‘Hey, all this stuff is coming in about X, we have to be careful, so we’re going to take him out so nothing happens to him.’

“So even little stuff like that can happen that can be good by having a prisoner of conscience list,” Wolf said. “I would argue that no congressional delegation go to any country without seeing who’s on the list.”

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