Each year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal government commission, publishes a report detailing the state of religious freedom around the world and highlighting particularly egregious violations. This year’s report, released in late April, drew special attention to the ongoing plight of prisoners of conscience – individuals who are imprisoned because of their religious beliefs – and the uniquely vulnerable position of refugees and asylum seekers, especially those fleeing religious persecution.
The universal human right to freedom of religion was enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. However, nearly 90% of the world’s countries still require citizens to register their religion with the government, and approximately three-quarters of the global population live in countries that lack any basic protections for freedom of religion. These statistics are overwhelming and highlight that a startling majority of the world is subject to religious persecution. As a country founded on the principle of religious liberty and a leader on the global stage, the United States has an obligation to champion religious freedom in its relations with other countries. In its report, USCIRF offers concrete policy prescriptions for the U.S. government to take to meet this obligation, most prominently by designating a violator a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).
Countries of Particular Concern have committed especially appalling violations of religious freedom, including the persecution of minority religions and legalized discrimination on the basis of religion or belief. The State Department may choose to adopt the Commission’s recommendation at the discretion of the administration, in consideration of other diplomatic concerns, and CPCs face various forms of diplomatic pressure, including sanctions. This year’s report recommended 16 nations for CPC status (displayed on the above map), including Vietnam, which had previously been designated a CPC in 2004. Pressure from the U.S. to address religious freedom concerns improved conditions in the country, which was subsequently removed from the list in 2006.
Despite some improvements, the Vietnamese government approved a new Law on Religion and Belief in November 2016. This law requires all religious groups to register with the government, which has the discretion to approve or reject registrations. The law also mandates that aspiring clergy “have the spirit of national unity and harmony” and that religious education must include Vietnamese law and history. Even though this law won’t enter force until January 2018, there are already 83 religious prisoners of conscience held in Vietnam, including a Catholic blogger.
This week, the Reform Movement joined an interfaith letter urging the State Department to designate Vietnam a CPC. As Reform Jews, we have too frequently in our history known the sting of religious persecution. Our experience as a religious minority teaches us that threats to religious liberty for any group threatens our own freedom and compels us to speak out for the protection of this universal human right.