Yesterday the State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2014. A wide range of U.S. government agencies and offices use the reports for such efforts as shaping policy and conducting diplomacy. The Secretary of State also uses the reports to help determine which countries have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom in order to designate “countries of particular concern.”
A major concern addressed in this year’s report is the violent opposition to religious freedom by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). David Saperstein, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom (IRF) is quoted in the report’s introduction saying,
There is an absolute and unequivocal need to give voice to the religiously oppressed in every land afraid to speak of what they believe in; who face death and live in fear, who worship in underground churches, mosques or temples, who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid killing and persecution simply because they love God in their own way or question the existence of God.
The report highlights numerous examples of state-sponsored persecution of Christians, including those in Iran and China:
Executions and arrests in Iran: The government of Iran executed, detained, harassed, and discriminated against members of religious minority groups as well as Muslims professing beliefs at variance with state-approved doctrine on charges of moharebeh (enmity against God) and anti-Islamic propaganda. On September 29, authorities executed Mohsen Amir-Aslani for making “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth.” Human rights groups reported that charges against him included insulting the prophet Jonah and promoting his own interpretation of the Quran. At the end of 2014, several hundred Baha’is, Christians, Sufi and Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, and Shia Muslims professing unapproved doctrine were in detention because of activities related to the peaceful practice of their religious beliefs, many arrested during raids on religious gatherings.
Crackdown on state-sanctioned Christian churches in China: The government sentenced Zhang Shaojie, a prominent state-sanctioned Christian pastor, to 12 years in prison on charges connected to his advocacy on behalf of his church community. Local authorities also shuttered many churches under the pastor’s jurisdiction as head of the district Protestant organization. Numerous international media sources reported that local authorities ordered the removal of hundreds of Christian crosses from churches in Zhejiang Province throughout the year.
While most incidents involved the removal of crosses and steeples, a handful of prominent churches were demolished, including the Sanjiang Church in the city of Wenzhou that was leveled in April despite efforts by its parishioners to form human shields to protect it. Zhejiang officials stated that crosses and churches needed to be “demolished” as “illegal structures” that violated local zoning laws. Unofficial “house” church members continued to face harassment and detention. Security officials frequently interrupted outdoor services of the unregistered Shouwang Church in Beijing and detained people attending those services for several days without charge. Reports indicated the average length of these detentions increased from hours to days. Several members of the church’s leadership, including Pastor Jin Tingming, remain under periods of extrajudicial detention since leading open air services in 2011.
Reports on each of the countries can be found here.
Healing Our World gently and provocatively challenges us to recognize the coercive nature of the government intervention we often consider inevitable and even desirable.