The U.S. State Department released its 2021 International Religious Freedom Report to Congress on Thursday. The report offers a “thorough, fact-based review” of the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
At a press conference in Washington, D.C., Blinken said that “in many parts of the world, governments are failing to respect their citizens’ basic rights.”
“Some governments continue to use blasphemy and apostasy laws, which banned defamation and renunciation of religion, to police the language of religious minorities. Others curtail expressions of religious belief like restrictions on religious attire,” he added.
Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, during the briefing said, “From Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; Jews in Europe; Baha’is in Iran; Christians in North Korea, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia; Muslims in Burma and China; Catholics in Nicaragua; and atheists and humanists around the world, no community has been immune from these abuses.”
The 2,000-plus page report covers government policies violating religious beliefs and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals. In his speech, Blinken provided examples of such policies, highlighting the persecution of religious minorities in countries like Myanmar, Eritrea, China and others.
“China continues its genocide and repression of predominately Muslim Uyghurs and other religious minority groups,” Blinken said. “Since April 2017, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang.”
The report indicates that Chinese authorities use sophisticated technologies, such as AI and facial recognition, to surveil and maintain control of its open-air prison in Xinjiang.
Blinken further noted that the Chinese Communist Party harasses adherents of other religions including by destroying Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, and Taoist houses of worship and creating obstacles for employment and housing for Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.
In addition, the State Department’s report detailed threats to religious freedom in India – the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, according to Blinken.
“Attacks on members of religious minority communities, including killings, assaults and intimidation, occurred throughout the year,” the report found, pointing to incidents against non-Hindus, as well as threats, attacks and incitement against Christians and Muslims.
In Afghanistan, religious freedom conditions have deteriorated dramatically since the Taliban seized control. In particular, Blinken underscored the Taliban’s crackdown on the “basic rights of women and girls to get an education, to work, to engage in society.” The report further shows that the Taliban regime and rival militant group ISIS-K have detained, intimidated, threatened and attacked members of religious minority communities.
In neighboring Pakistan, at least 16 individuals accused of blasphemy were sentenced to death by national courts in 2021. Blinken mentioned that none of these sentences has yet to be carried out.
Courts in Russia have reached new milestones last year for excessive prison sentences against individuals exercising their religious freedom, according to the report.
“Russian authorities carry out hundreds of home raids against suspected extremists that frequently include violence,” added Hussain.
The annual review of International Religious Freedom did make note of several countries which have made positive progress since the last report.
In his speech, Blinken highlighted Iraq, which welcomed Pope Francis for the first-ever papal visit to the country. Furthermore, Morocco launched an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites, such as synagogues and cemeteries. The North African country has become the first in the region to include Jewish history in its public-school curriculum.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, Blinken said the U.S. recognizes the “important recent moves that were taken to increase interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in the Kingdom. However, he criticized the Saudi policy, which states that it is illegal to publicly practice any faith other than Islam.
“The Saudi government continues to discriminate against members of religious minority communities,” he said.