At least we know their names. The plight of Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag in Sudan and Saeed Abedini in Iran, persecuted for their Christian faith, has become notorious around the globe. Countless others suffer for their religious beliefs unnamed and too often unnoticed by the rest of the world. As international outrage builds on behalf of Ishag and Abedini, it should focus on securing their individual freedom as well protection in law for the religious liberty of all.
The horrifying details of Ishag’s case have shocked the world in recent weeks. The 27-year-old pregnant mother was sentenced to death by a Sudanese court for the offenses–under its interpretation of Islamic law—of apostasy and adultery. Ishag is married to a Sudanese Christian who became a naturalized American citizen in 2005. She was imprisoned several months ago when she refused to recant her faith and has been shackled in a cell where her 20-month-old son, Martin, is with her. She was reportedly still in shackles as she gave birth to a girl in the prison last week. Sudanese officials have stayed Ishag’s execution for two years while she nurses her baby.
For the past two years, fragments of news about Pastor Abedini have made their way out of his Tehran prison cell. Abedini is a U.S. citizen from Iran who returned to that country in 2012 to help an orphanage there. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison. After suffering brutal treatment, Abedini was hospitalized two months ago. His parents were allowed to visit him there, but while they were with him there about a week ago, armed guards reportedly stormed in, removed their son, beat him, and returned him to prison.
President Obama drew attention to Pastor Abedini’s suffering during the National Prayer breakfast in February and raised it in his much-publicized phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last September. More recently, the State Department has expressed concern about Meriam Ibrahim Ishag’s case.
But the administration has not fully deployed the tools at its disposal to promote religious freedom for these and others suffering persecution around the globe. A key post at the State Department, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, has been vacant for much of President Obama’s time in office. The position and the office it oversees were created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). That law requires the administration to incorporate international religious freedom as a foreign policy objective and to seek the protection of religious liberty around the world.
President Obama did not nominate anyone for the Ambassador-at-Large post for the first 18 months of his administration. Nor has he nominated anyone in the seven months since the resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook last October. The fact that the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom has been vacant 34 of the 64 months of the Obama administration says much about the relative priority of religious liberty in its dealings.
IRFA also requires the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom to identify annually “countries of particular concern” (CPC) for their ongoing egregious violations of the basic human right. Since 2006, the State Department has listed eight such countries: in addition to Iran and Sudan, these include Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan.
Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan independent body established by IRFA, recommended that another eight nations be added to the ranks of the worst offenders. The USCIRF report also criticized the administration—as well as its predecessors—for failing to use the designation tool to pressure these countries to respect religious freedom.
“In addition to repeating the same countries for years, administrations generally have decided not to levy new Presidential actions in accordance with CPC designations,” says the USCIRF 2014 report. This approach has “provided little incentive for CPC-designated governments to reduce or halt egregious violations of religious freedom.”
As Christians around the world pray by name for Meriam Ibrahim Ishag and Saeed Abedini, the Obama administration should better deploy the tools designed to advance religious freedom around the globe. The prayers of countless persecuted individuals whose names we don’t know cry out for relief.