Mary Ann Glendon & KatrinaLantos Swett
December 10 marks Human Rights Day,the sixty-seventh anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of HumanRights (UDHR). Unfortunately fundamental rights, including religious freedom,are still being violated worldwide.
Among the worst abusers are non-stateactors like ISIL and other violent religious extremist groups. In Syria andIraq, ISIL has persecuted Shia and Sunni Muslims alike, while reserving some ofits worst depredations for Yazidis and Christians. From summary executions toforced conversions, rape to sexual enslavement, abducted children to destroyedhouses of worship, attacks on these communities—among the oldest in the MiddleEast—are part of a systematic effort to erase their presence.
State actors from China to Iran toUzbekistan continue their own assault on freedom: witness the persistentpresence and gross mistreatment of prisoners of conscience.
In order to spotlight the plight ofthese prisoners, as well as the repressive laws and policies of the governmentsholding them, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives in conjunction with the U.S. Commission on InternationalReligious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, and Amnesty International USA,created the Defending Freedoms Project. Through this project, members ofCongress select prisoners in order to call culpable governments to account andultimately help free these prisoners.
Among these governments are thoseUSCIRF has recommended to the State Department for designation as “countries ofparticular concern,” or CPCs, marking them as some of the world’s worstreligious freedom abusers.
China, for example, imposed thedraconian sentence of life imprisonment on Ilham Tohti in September 2014for “separatism,” due to his peaceful activism on behalf of his fellow UighurMuslims, whom the government persecutes relentlessly. Tohti was an economicsprofessor in Beijing, where he was known for his research on Uighur-Hanrelations as well as his activism for the implementation of regional autonomyin Xinjiang.
Eritrea has been holding OrthodoxPatriarch Abune Antonios since 2007 at an undisclosed location, preventing himfrom communicating with the outside world while reportedly denying him medicalcare. In 2006, Eritrea’s government had deposed him from his position as headof the Eritrean Orthodox Church and placed him under house arrest, ironicallyafter he protested meddling in his church’s affairs. Among the accusationsagainst the patriarch were his reluctance to excommunicate 3,000 members of anOrthodox Sunday School movement and his demands that the regime releaseimprisoned human rights activists accused of treason.
Uzbekistan holds up to 12,000prisoners, mostly for the independent practice of Islam. In April 2010 itsentenced two sisters, Mehriniso and Zulkhumor Hamdamova, to prison terms ofseven and six-and-half years, respectively, and their relative ShahloRakhmonova to a six-and-a-half-year term, for conducting private Muslimreligious instruction of girls. Mehriniso was sentenced despite being a teacherfor a government-approved women’s religion course, and is being held indeplorable conditions while battling cancer.
China, Eritrea and Uzbekistanexemplify nations in which secular authoritarian tyrannies refuse to accept theindependence of religious communities, resulting in serious religious freedomviolations against members of groups ranging from Catholics and Evangelicals,to Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong.
Other nations, such as Iran and SaudiArabia, have religiously authoritarian governments which enthrone a singlereligious group or interpretation while persecuting dissenting religiouscommunities or individuals.
Iran sentenced Pastor Saeed Abediniin January 2012 to an eight-year prison term for participating in Iran’s housechurch movement. And for more than seven-and-a-half years, seven leaders ofIran’s Baha’i community have been imprisoned: Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi,Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Vahid Tizfahm, Fariba Kamalabadi and MahvashSabet.
In Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi,founder and editor of the Free Saudi Liberals Web site, wassentenced in 2013 to 600 lashes and seven years in prison, and ordered to shutdown his site. After appealing his conviction for blasphemy and other charges,he was given a new sentence in 2014 of ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.Badawi’s lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair—a human rights activist and the head ofthe group “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia”—was given a fifteen-yearsentence.
Unfortunately, tyrannies aren’t theonly governments which perpetrate or tolerate severe religious freedom abuses.Pakistan, an electoral democracy, has more people on death row or serving lifesentences for blasphemy than any other nation. Among them is Aasia Bibi, aCatholic mother sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy. In October 2014, herappeal was dismissed and her death sentence upheld. This summer, Pakistan’sSupreme Court accepted her appeal and suspended her death sentence. No hearingdate has been set.
As we commemorate Human Rights Day,it is time for the world community to rededicate itself to religious freedomand other rights, hold abusers accountable and demand the release of these andother prisoners of conscience.
Mary Ann Glendon and KatrinaLantos Swett are Commissioners on the U.S. Commission on InternationalReligious Freedom (USCIRF).
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