The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s top religious freedom advocate expressed concern Tuesday after a new U.S. government report cited dozens of examples of religiously motivated imprisonment over the past year.
This year’s report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the state of religious freedom worldwide has deteriorated over the past 12 months and adds eight countries — Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Syria, and Central African Republic — to its list of “countries of particular concern.”
The 270-page report, released May 1, contains numerous cases of religiously motivated imprisonment, including a poet and artist in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to death after being accused of spreading atheism. His punishment was later changed to 800 lashes and eight years in prison. The report also mentions a Christian pastor and his wife who are serving a 12-year prison sentence for opposing a government campaign to remove crosses from atop churches.
Ganoune Diop, director of the Adventist world church’s public affairs and religious liberty department, called the report’s focus on prisoners of conscience “a troubling confirmation of longstanding global trends.”
“In reality, though, there is no way to verify the scale of this tragedy,” Diop said. “Many cases are never publicized, and untold numbers of men and women around the world suffer imprisonment or worse under laws that enforce a particular religious worldview.”
Diop pointed to the case of Sajjad Masih, a 32-year-old Adventist believer in Pakistan who was sentenced to life in prison in 2013 after being accused of defaming the Prophet Muhammad under the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Masih says he is wrongly accused.
“Laws that oppress religious minorities on behalf of a majority faith not only run counter to international law and human rights norms, but they distort the very nature of faith itself,” Diop said. “The Adventist Church believes that freedom of conscience is the foundation of true faith. And this is a freedom that is grounded in the innate dignity of every human being — an inalienable gift of our Creator.”
The report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom documents continuing abuses in 33 countries and regions, but focuses particularly this year on the plight of prisoners of conscience and the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing religious persecution.
Among those who fled religious abuses last year, according to the report, were thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, an estimated half million Eritreans, and millions of men, women, and children, both Christians and Muslims, displaced by ongoing violence in Syria and Iraq.
The report is “a potent reminder that the church and all those who advocate for religious freedom must keep these abuses before the international community,” said Nelu Burcea, an associate director of the Adventist world church’s public affairs and religious liberty department, who represents the church at the United Nations.
While it is important for individual governments, such as the United States, to take unilateral action in support of international religious freedom, real progress requires a concerted international effort to pressure noncompliant countries to fulfill their obligations under international law, Burcea said.
In an attempt to advocate for greater awareness of religious freedom abuses and for intervention by governments, the Adventist Church will partner with the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute in downtown Washington for an international religious freedom summit later this month. Dwayne Leslie, event organizer and an associate director of the Adventist world church’s public affairs and religious liberty department, said the gathering would bring together public leaders, religious liberty advocates, and journalists to consider current challenges to religious freedom around the world, and explore ways to collaborate on shared goals.
Presenters will include former U.S. Representative Frank Wolf, a leading supporter of international religious freedom legislation throughout his congressional career; Knox Thames, special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. State Department, and Erastus J.O. Mwencha, deputy chair of the African Union. Among the journalists who will address the group are E.J. Dionne, political commentator and opinion writer for The Washington Post; and Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.