The U.S. State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom on Friday and announced that it will strengthen its office that oversees international religious freedom issues.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a brief address at a press conference unveiling the report, which serves as a “report card” tracking countries’ progress on religious freedom in 2018.
Pompeo called out countries such as Iran, Russia, Myanmar, and China for their abuses of religious freedom and praised positive steps taken in nations such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
“Unfortunately,  was far from perfect,” Pompeo said. “As in previous years, our report exposes a chilling array of abuses committed by oppressive regimes, violent extremist groups, and individual citizens. For all those who run roughshod over religious freedom, I’ll just say this: the United States is watching and you will be held to account.”
“History will not be silent about these abuses,” he added. “But only voices of liberty like ours record it.”
The report is compiled by the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which is led by Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.
The position was created under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Religious freedom activists have long called for the office to be strengthened when it comes to its influence on U.S. foreign policy.
Pompeo announced at the press briefing that he is elevating the Office of International Religious Freedom and Office of the Special Envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism within the State Department.
“Effectively immediately, each of these two offices will report directly to the undersecretary for civilian, security, democracy and human rights,” he explained. “Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, will continue to report directly to me.”
Pompeo added that the reorganization will provide each of those offices with additional staff and resources.
“It will empower them to carry out their important mandates,” he assured.
Speaking about the report, Pompeo noted the progress made by Uzbekistan, which last year was removed from the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for international religious freedom violations, a designation that carries with it the possibility of sanctions.
“For the first time in 13 years, [Uzbekistan] is no longer designated a CPC,” Pompeo said. “This past year, the government released a religious freedom roadmap. Fifteen-hundred religious prisoners have been freed and 16,000 people that were blacklisted for their religious affiliation are now allowed to travel.”
Pompeo also praised Pakistan, which was designated a CPC last year, for the fact that Catholic mother Asia Bibi was acquited by the Pakistan Supreme Court and released from death row after spending about a decade in prison on blasphemy charges.
Pompeo was critical of Iran, which continues to crack down on Baha’is, Christian, and other religious minorities.
Brownback, a former governor of Kansas and U.S. senator, told reporters that Iran “continues to show a blatant disregard for protecting individuals’ religious freedom.”
“Iranian religious minorities including Bahaiis, Christians, Jews, Zoarastains, Sunni and Sufi Muslims faced discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs,” Brownback said. “Their religious books are banned. They are denied access to education and their cemeteries are desecrated.”
“Last year, the Iranian regime violently cracked down on a peaceful protest of Sufi dervishes … in what Human Rights Watch called one of the largest crackdowns on a religious minority in Iran in a decade,” he added.
This year’s report includes a special section on China’s detention of at least 800,000 to possibly over 2 million Uighur Muslims, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslims groups in the Xinjiang province.
Brownback declared that the detention camps these prisoners are held in are “designed to strip away the culture, identity, and faith of these religious communities.”
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith