Blinken calls respect for religious freedom a ‘vital foreign policy priority’
WASHINGTON, DC – For US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, respect for religious freedom is “a vital foreign policy priority” in addition to being “one of the most deeply held values and a fundamental right.”
“We know that when the fundamental right of every person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected, people can make their full contribution to the successes of their community; entire societies are better off,” he said June 2 during a briefing at the State Department in Washington.
He made the comments when releasing the ministry’s 2021 report on international religious freedom.
He was joined by U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, who is Blinken’s and President Joe Biden’s top adviser on religious freedom terms and policy.
Mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the annual report details the status of religious freedom in 200 foreign countries and territories and describes US actions to support religious freedom around the world.
The Office of International Religious Freedom leads the annual report-writing process, and Blinken noted that the office was the only government entity in the world tasked with monitoring and defending international religious freedom more than two decades ago.
“Now we have more than 35 governments and multilateral organizations that have established dedicated offices for this purpose,” he said.
While this year’s report documents “significant progress” on religious freedom issues, the report also shows troubling conditions, he said, citing China, Burma/Myanmar, Eritrea, Pakistan , Afghanistan and India as examples.
“China continues its genocide and repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other minority religious groups. Since April 2017, more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang (province),” he said.
The People’s Republic of China, Blinken continued, “continues to harass followers of other religions that it deems contrary to the doctrine of the Chinese Community Party, including destroying Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Taoist places of worship and erecting barriers to employment and housing”. for Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.
Regarding Burma, the former name of Myanmar, Blinken said that after a thorough legal review of the evidence, “I have determined that the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity with intent to destroy the Muslim-majority Rohingya in 2017.
This was demonstrated “by, among other things, attacks on mosques, the use of religious and ethnic slurs, the desecration of Qurans, among, again, many other actions,” Blinken said.
In Eritrea, only four religious groups are allowed to practice their faith freely, he said.
In Afghanistan, conditions for religious freedom “have deteriorated dramatically under the Taliban, particularly as they suppress the basic rights of women and girls to education, to work, to engage in society, often under the banner of religion.
In Pakistan, at least 16 people accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by Pakistani courts in 2021, “although none of these sentences have yet been carried out”, he said.
“In India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we have seen increasing attacks on people and places of worship,” Blinken said. “In Vietnam…authorities harass members of unregistered religious communities; in Nigeria…where several state governments use libel and blasphemy laws to punish people for speaking out their beliefs.
Among the countries Blinken called for showing progress on religious freedom are Morocco, Taiwan, Timor-Leste and Iraq.
Last year, he said, Morocco launched an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites, such as synagogues and cemeteries, and to include Jewish history in the curriculum of Moroccan public schools.
“In Taiwan, authorities are making it easier to report employers who refuse to give their workers a weekly day off to attend religious services,” he said.
Timor-Leste’s new president, José Manuel Ramos-Horta, “has recently pledged to defend the rights of all citizens, regardless of their religious background”, Blinken said.
He highlighted Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq in March 2021. It was the first papal visit to that country and a Pope Francis called it a “pilgrimage of faith and penance.” The trip not only included his visits to the Catholic faithful, but also a historic meeting with the revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Blinken said, “A local leader in the city of Nasiriyah, Sheikh Haider al-Dubaisi, later reflected on the Pope’s visit and said, and I quote, ‘He came even though he could barely walk . He sent a message not only to Iraqis, but to the whole world, that Islam and other religions can sit together peacefully.
In many parts of the world, “governments are failing to respect the basic rights of their citizens,” Blinken said. “Some governments continue to use blasphemy and apostasy laws, which prohibit defamation and renunciation of religion, to control the language of religious minorities.
“Others restrict expressions of religious belief like restrictions on religious clothing.”
All societies, “including ours and across Europe,” he said, “must do more to counter growing forms of hatred, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.”