As The Daily Signal reported last week, Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, the Suadenese mother sentenced to death for her Christian faith, has arrived safely in America.
This represents an important victory for religious freedom, but Ishag’s story is far from an isolated event. At the release of the 2014 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom annual report, then-chairman of the commission Robert P. George announced that 76 percent of the world’s population lives under regimes that oppress religious freedom.
According to George, “freedom of religion” means more than freedom to worship. It also means the right to enter the public square and advocate on behalf of one’s beliefs and the right to change one’s religion. These aspects of religious freedom apply to believers of any religion, non-theists and atheists.
Why should Americans care about the state of religious freedom in other nations? George stressed both the foundational nature of religious rights—that, as rational beings, all of us have the right to live according to our consciences. But he also pointed out practical considerations. In general, he said, countries that don’t honor religious freedom have more war, poverty and terrorism than other nations.
George said if religious freedom truly matters to Americans, they must promote it through their foreign policy—and this is not happening. He pointed to a requirement under the International Religious Freedom Act that the State Department report annually on the state of religious liberty in the world. The worst offenders are identified as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs.
Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan make up the current list. Of the eight countries the State Department recommended be added to the list, only Turkmenistan made it on. The others—Egypt, Iraq, Vietnam, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria and Tajikistan—did not.
The State Department’s report recommended not only updating the list but IRFA as well so it can identify countries without governments and other non-state actors that violate religious liberty.
As George said, religious freedom is the “canary in a coal mine.” As soon as the right to religious freedom is taken away, other assaults on human rights aren’t far behind.
Jennifer Marshall, vice president of The Heritage Foundation’s Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, agreed: “Religious freedom is the birthright of all people,” she said. “But too few governments around the world acknowledge it, and far too many people have never enjoyed it.”