Background on Religious Persecution

In 1998, President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act into law. This landmark piece of legislation included the following:

  • It addresses all forms of religious persecution recognized by the international community. The law covers both gross violations of human rights and the more subtle and prevalent forms of persecution, such as church burning, job discrimination, stifling of religious expression, and the inability to hold services. This broader definition for religious persecution is consistent with international human rights standards.
  • It allows a flexible, case-by-case response on the part of the Administration since one response is not appropriate in all circumstances. The Administration must choose from a broad menu of options ranging from private diplomatic protest to economic sanctions consistent with the level of persecution.
  • It requires consultation with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), churches, and synagogues prior to any action to ensure that the U.S. response, if any, will help, not harm, the religious minority on the ground.
  • It improves reporting of religious persecution and provides better training and sensitivity to the issue in U.S. foreign policy structures.
  • It does not create a "hierarchy of human rights" in which persecution on the basis of religion has a higher priority than political or cultural persecution such that victims are not granted asylum to the detriment of other refugee groups.
  • It does not provide automatic sanctions against countries listed in the report of persecuting countries, but rather a menu of options, ranging from a call or a letter to withdrawal of military or economic aid.

The International Religious Freedom Act also created a 10-member independent governmental commission entitled the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The group is charged with advising the President and Congress on strengthening religious freedom and combating religious persecution worldwide. This body is appointed by both Democratic and Republican Leadership, as well as from the Legislative and Executive Branch. As part of the its mandate, the Commission must produce a report on religious persecution following the State Department's release of its annual human rights report, and recommend policy to address issues of international religious persecution. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center, was unanimously elected to be the Commission's first Chairman. Leonard A. Leo, Executive Vice President of the Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies, is the current chairman.

The 2010 International Religious Freedom Annual Report named 13 "countries of particular concern," including 8 carry-overs from the 2009 report: Myanmar, also known as Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These countries are now joined by Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as nations that have been serious violators of religious freedom. An additional 8 nations, Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela – have been labeled as countries that "require very close attention.” The report further recommends that Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka be "closely monitored."

The report criticized the U.S. government for not doing enough to stem the flow of religious persecution around the world. "Neither prior Democratic nor Republican administrations, nor the current administration, have been sufficiently engaged in promoting the freedom of religion or belief abroad," the report stated. "The United States must redouble its efforts to raise these concerns at the highest levels of the world community. Anything less betrays our history and values, and fails to leverage the extraordinary capacity we have as a nation to promote religious freedom and related human rights for all."