Tillerson's religious liberty stand draws praise

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Southern Baptist and other religious freedom advocates praised Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's defense of religious freedom -- especially his unequivocal labeling of the crimes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as genocide -- upon the release of an annual report Tuesday (Aug. 15).

Religious freedom advocates praised Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's defense of religious freedom upon the release of an annual report Tuesday (Aug. 15).
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In introducing the International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, Tillerson said he was removing "any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department."

ISIS "is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled," Tillerson said. "ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities."

Tillerson described protection of such groups as "a human rights priority for the Trump administration" and promised continued work with others in the Middle East not only to guard the religious minorities but "to preserve their cultural heritage."

In addressing the universal state of religious liberty, Tillerson said, "Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root."

The administration is committed "to addressing these conditions in part by advancing international religious freedom around the world," he said. "The State Department will continue to advocate on behalf of those seeking to live their lives according to their faith."

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission expressed appreciation for Tillerson's statement.

"We're grateful for Secretary Tillerson's leadership this week on international religious freedom by explicitly emphasizing the United States has both the moral imperative and strategic interest to include the issue in our diplomacy," said Matt Hawkins, a policy director for the ERLC. "The trends in global persecution and extremism underscore the need for the International Religious Freedom office to rise in prominence within the State Department."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) -- a bipartisan panel that reports to the federal government on global conditions for religious adherents -- said it strongly endorsed Tillerson's remarks on genocide.

"He expressed unequivocally that ISIS is responsible for genocide against Y[a]zidis, Christians, and Shi'a Muslims," USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said in a written release. "Such a strong and clear statement is both needed and appropriate."

Congressional champions of international religious liberty applauded the secretary's statement.

"It is vitally important that our top diplomat clearly and unequivocally proclaim that religious freedom is a core American value and a universal human right," said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and a Southern Baptist, in written comments. "It is important for America to be clear about the human rights abuses happening around the world, as well as the genocide being committed by ISIS against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. commended Tillerson "for focusing on those who have been victims of genocide. These groups are looking for help and leadership, and I am proud that after eight years of denial and foot dragging, this report positions the United States to become a world leader in helping those who need it most."

Previous Secretary of State John Kerry had used "genocide" in March 2016 to describe ISIS' campaign against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, but religious freedom advocate Nina Shea said he presented it as his own belief. Tillerson, meanwhile, made it clear the designation of genocide was a State Department determination.

Tillerson "went further than previous administrations -- committing to protect targeted minorities from violent extremism even after ISIS is defeated and to preserving their culture heritage," said Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. "He pressed for a more religiously tolerant culture, specifically in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and other Muslim countries."

In his comments, Tillerson cited seven countries among many that "use discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief" -- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, Pakistan, Sudan and Bahrain.

According to the report, Iran designates in its constitution that Ja'afari Shia Islam is the official state religion. Iran's law calls for the death penalty for efforts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims. In the last year, the government executed people, including 20 Sunni Muslim Kurds, for "enmity against God." The regime also maintained its harassment and arrest of Bahais, Christians, Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities and "regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing," the report says.

Saudi Arabia's legal system is based on sharia law and criminalizes non-Muslim public worship, proselytizing by non-Muslims and conversion to another faith by Muslims, the report says. During the year, the government convicted and imprisoned people on such charges as apostasy, blasphemy, insulting Islam and violating Islamic values and moral standards, according to the report.

China's communist government continued to assert control over religious practice in the world's most populous country, the report says. Among those who were abused, harassed, arrested, imprisoned or tortured were members of unregistered Christian churches and the Falun Gong sect, as well as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, according to the report.

The report on 199 countries and territories did not include a new list of "countries of particular concern" (CPCs). The State Department has 90 days after the release of its report to designate CPCs.

The current CPCs -- which the State Department considers the world's most severe violators of religious freedom -- are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In its April report, USCIRF recommended CPC redesignation for the same 10 countries plus new CPC designations for the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. The commission also urged the designation of three Muslim terrorist groups -- ISIS, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia -- as "entities of particular concern" (EPCs), a new category for non-state organizations that use violence against people of faith.

"The report is an important tool in identifying problems worldwide -- but it is just a start," Smith said. "We must take action on what is found in the report."

Tillerson, Hawkins and Lankford all expressed hope for a swift confirmation of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to fill the vacant position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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