State Department Releases 2018 Religious Freedom Report

The U.S. State Department pointed out the transgressions of Iran, Russia, Myanmar and China in its annual International Religious Freedom Report released Friday, while commending progress in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey.

The report covers all of 2018, and serves as a “report card” tracking progress on matters of religious freedom. The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, led by Sam Brownback, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, compiled the report and is responsible for presenting it to Congress each year as mandated by the Religious Act of 1998.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed reporters during a brief press conference unveiling the report: “I often humbly reflect on how God’s providence has guided me to the office, to defend this cause. I think about how, as an American, I’ve been blessed to enjoy the unfettered exercise of religious freedom, our first liberty here in the United States.

“But in much of the world, governments and groups deny individuals that same unalienable right. People are persecuted—handcuffed, thrown in jail, and even killed—for their decision to believe, or not believe.

“Given our own great freedoms, it’s a distinctly American responsibility to stand up for faith in every nation’s public square.”

Uzbekistan, one of the countries Pompeo praised, was previously on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations, which carries the possibility of sanctions. But for the first time in 13 years, the country is no longer on the list, Pompeo announced at Friday’s press conference, and its government has “released a religious freedom roadmap.” According to the report, Uzbekistan has released hundreds of religious prisoners and granted travel permission to 16,000 people who had been blacklisted for their religious affiliation.

The releases of Asia Bibi from Pakistan and Andrew Brunson from Turkey were also highlighted in the report.

In contrast, Iran, Russia, Myanmar and China were issued a warning from the Secretary of State: “Unfortunately, [2018] was far from perfect,” Pompeo said. “As in previous years, our report exposes a chilling array of abuses committed by oppressive regimes, violent extremist groups and individual citizens. For all those who run roughshod over religious freedom, I’ll just say this: The United States is watching and you will be held to account.”

As an effort to strengthen the Office of International Religious Freedom and Office of Special Envoy, Pompeo announced that the two offices will now directly report to the undersecretary for civilian, security, democracy and human rights.

Tony Perkins, the newly elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and president of the Family Research Council, wrote in an op-ed for Religion News Service: “In the effort to promote religious freedom, Christians must remain informed, advocate for policies protecting religious communities and submit these issues to God in prayer.

“Religious freedom is not merely an American right,” Perkins said. “It is a human right that we are compelled to protect and promote for all people …”

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