By Aaron Earls
International religious freedom is facing a tenuous moment right now, according to the U.S. agency created to monitor it.
Thomas Reese, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said, “Overall, the commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both depth and breadth of violations.”
While most of the worst violators of religious freedom stayed the same from last year, one nation was moved to the most serious category for the first time—Russia.
In total, 16 nations were designated as a country of particular concern (CPC): Burma, China, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Iraq has been recognized as a CPC since 2008 and Egypt since 2011, but both dropped off the list this year due to efforts by the government improvements in protecting religious minorities. The opposite has taken place in Russia.
The USCIRF’s 2017 annual report noted numerous tactics enacted by Russia that reduced religious freedom, including a new package of amendments ostensibly designed to combat terrorism.
The laws, however, have been used to outlaw common religious practices outside of designated zones, including preaching, praying, and even answering questions about religion.
At least 53 individuals and organizations have been prosecuted, according to the USCRIF report. Forty-three were from Christian groups not affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is home to 71 percent of the Russian population and has become a de facto state church.
Those charges have led to 34 convictions, which resulted in substantial fines for activities such as conducting baptisms and advertising prayer groups online.
In January, an Indian citizen working as a Protestant pastor and married to a Russian woman was deported after being found guilty of giving religious literature to an unregistered church visitor.
On the heels of the USCIRF’s report, the first-ever World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians was held in Washington D.C. The event was organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Numerous faith and government leaders gathered to address the growing religious freedom violations around the world, particularly at the expense of Christians.
In 2015, Christians were harassed in 128 countries among the 198 countries Pew Research surveyed, the most of any religion.
After three years of declines, Pew also found an increase in the number of nations with high or very high levels of government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion.
“Too many nations let the mob trample on the rights of the minority,” Vice President Pence told the summit.
“Still more prefer the coercion of the state to conviction of the soul. And the limitations placed on people of belief have become too numerous to count. They range from violence to vandalism, forced conversion to crush free speech, blasphemy laws to building codes, to detainment, to death.”
While Pence said global Christians increasingly face persecution, he also noted that adherents of other religions have also suffered. “We will speak for them and pray for them as well,” he said. “For as history attests, persecution of one faith is ultimately the persecution of all faiths.”
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@Lifeway.com) is online editor of Facts & Trends.