Religious freedom in Syria is life and death; in the US it can hinge on not baking cakes for gay people

(Photo: United Nations Human Rights Facebook page)

Religious freedom globally has been under serious and sustained assault an independent government-backed yearly report on 2015 says, but that freedom in the United States, say, and in the rest of the world focus on very different issues.

In the Middle East it can mean the struggle for Christian survival against the onslaught of Islamist extremists, while in America "religious liberty" has become associated for the religious right as intertwined with the right to oppose LGBT protections and same-sex marriage.

"At best, in most of the countries we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve," says Princeton professor Robert George, the USCIRF chairman. "At worst, they've spiraled downward," NPR reported.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports on the "serious and sustained assault" on religious people and practices abroad in its latest report.

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"From the plight of new and longstanding prisoners of conscience, to the dramatic rise in the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, to the continued acts of bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe, and to the other abuses detailed in the 2016 annual report, there was no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide," says the report.

"Adding disproportionately to the ranks of the displaced were millions from Iraq and Syria, including Yazidis, Christians, Shi'a Muslims, and Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the barbaric interpretation of Islam of the terrorist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also often referred to as IS, ISIL, or Da'esh).

ISIS MAYHEM

The report says ISIS summarily executes, rapes, sexual enslaves, and abducts children, destroying houses of worship, and forcing conversions in "a genocidal effort to erase their presence from these countries."

The report cites the incarceration of prisoners of conscience—people whom governments hold for reasons including those related to religion.

Such imprisonment remains astonishingly widespread, says the report, occurring in country after country, and underscores the impact of the laws and policies that led to their imprisonment.

"When we hear about religious freedom in the U.S. today, we may think about a baker who doesn't want to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. But in other countries, religious freedom can be a matter of life or death. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom underscored that today," NPR's Tom Gjelten commented.

The report names China, where religious freedom in the world's most populous knowledge has been whittling away.

In China, pastor Bao Guohua and his wife, Xing Wenxiang, were sentenced in Zhejiang Province in February 2016 to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively.

They led a Christian congregation that was opposing a government campaign to remove crosses from church tops.

They join many other prisoners of conscience, including Ilham Tohti, a respected Uighur Muslim scholar, who was given a life sentence in September 2014 for alleged separatism.

"Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state's supremacy and maintenance of a "socialist society," says the report.

Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.

DALAI LAMA

It also says Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists continue to be repressed, and the Chinese government has asserted its own authority to select the next Dalai Lama.

Falun Gong practitioners often are held in "black jails" and brainwashing centers, with credible reports of torture, sexual violence, psychiatric experimentation, and organ harvesting.

The report also names Eritrea, where 1,200 to 3,000 people are imprisoned on religious grounds, there reportedly were new arrests this past year.

Religious prisoners are routinely sent to the toughest prisons and receive the cruelest punishments.

Religious freedom conditions are grave especially for Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses.

In Iran the report names Shahram Ahadi, a Sunni cleric, who was sentenced in October 2015 to death on unfounded security-related charges.

Iran locks up many other prisoners of conscience including the Baha'i Seven who were given 20-year sentences in 2010 for their leadership roles in the persecuted Baha'i community. They are: Afif Naeimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Vahid Tizfahm, Fariba Kamalabadi, Mahvash Sabet, and Saeid Rezaie.

Iran elevates its own interpretation of Shi'a Islam above all others, and it subjects Shi'as, Sunnis, Sufi Muslim dissenters, Baha'is and Christian converts to mounting religious freedom abuses, from harassment to arrests and imprisonment.

Since President Hasan Rouhani took office in 2013, the number of individuals from religious minority communities imprisoned due to their beliefs has increased.

North Korea has long been one of the worst violators of religious freedom and there thousands of religious believers and their families are imprisoned in labor camps, including those forcibly repatriated from China.

"Because North Korea is such a closed society, it is hard even to know the names of religious prisoners," says the report.

All political and religious expression and activities are controlled and the government punishes those who question the regime leaving religious freedom non-existent.

"North Koreans suspected of contacts with South Koreans or foreign missionaries or who are caught possessing Bibles have been executed."

Other violators of religious freedom named are Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Copyright © 2015 Ecumenical News