Fear for religious freedom

In the fall of 2012, three mothers, along with their infant children, begin serving one-to-two-year prison terms in Iran. Their crime? Being Baha'is in the birthplace of their faith. In February 2012, a man is jailed without charge in Saudi Arabia. Why? According to authorities, for his own safety because he allegedly "disturbed the public order" by tweeting comments deemed to insult the religious feelings of others. In December 2012, an atheist blogger is sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt. His offense? Posting online content that allegedly "insulted God and cast doubt on the books of the Abrahamic religions."

These are just some of the many examples of the contempt that governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) often exhibit toward freedom of religion or belief. Since the onset of the Arab Awakening in early 2011, religious freedom conditions have not improved, but declined. While larger hopes for justice and democracy are experiencing convulsive birth pangs, majority and minority religious believers alike face increasing government repression in many MENA countries; sectarian violence is on the upswing; and violent religious extremism is fueling regional instability.

This week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which I serve as Deputy Director for Policy and Research, released its 2013 annual report on the state of religious freedom over the past year in dozens of countries around the world. The report documents a range of abuses in the MENA region and offers extensive recommendations for U.S. policy. While religious freedom faces a number of challenges across the globe, a 2012 Pew Center study found the MENA region ranked the worst not only in government restrictions on religion but also in social hostilities involving religion.

That the MENA region also contains some the world's most unstable societies is quite telling. As a number of studies show, there remains an inextricable connection between a state's failure to protect religious freedom and its experiencing continued tumult and instability. Particularly in a region where religion remains paramount for so many people, no good societal outcome has come, or possibly can come, from depriving millions of people this internationally recognized right.

Findings from recent USCIRF visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain strongly suggest the U.S. government apply a more robust religious freedom policy in the region.

In Egypt, despite some progress at the ballot box during its political transition, the government has failed to protect its religious minorities, particularly Coptic Christians, from sectarian attacks. Egypt's police and security forces have even aided and abetted the violence. This has fostered a climate of impunity, making future attacks more likely. Meanwhile, Egyptian courts increasingly are prosecuting and imprisoning Sunni, Shiite, and Christian citizens for "contempt of religion." Since almost anyone in Egypt can lodge defamation complaints, President Mohamed Morsi's government and its allies have used this legal tool in an effort to silence critics under the guise of "denigrating Islam." The government has employed these tactics against famed political satirist Bassem Youssef and other Muslims, but also against Copts. What's more, Egypt's new constitution, adopted in December 2012, includes several problematic provisions affecting religious freedom, such as elevating a particular brand of Sunni Islam over other Muslim schools of thought (Article 219), limiting places of worship to only three "divine religions" (Article 43), and, alone among constitutions in the Arab world, including a provision prohibiting blasphemy (Article 44).

In Saudi Arabia, the government has attempted to rein in the notorious Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, or religious police, and continues to counter religious extremism inside the kingdom. Nevertheless, it uniquely restricts the public expression of every religion besides Islam. The government elevates its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all others and bans non-Muslim public places of worship. Saudi authorities detain and jail Shiites who speak out about discrimination and the government continues to imprison people convicted of apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery. Saudi officials often cite national security concerns as a pretext for cracking down on minorities and dissidents. Despite making some revisions in elementary and middle school textbooks, the government has yet to expunge high-school-level vitriol and intolerance.

Across the causeway in Bahrain -- a country with a historically good track record on religious minorities -- there continues to be a lack of accountability for government killings, torture, and other abuses against majority Shiite demonstrators since early 2011. Bahrain's discrimination against majority Shiites is homegrown and the unrest has had a detrimental impact on religious freedom. Only a handful of the more than 30 Shiite mosques and religious structures destroyed by authorities in 2011 have been rebuilt, or are near completion, and there is no timetable for reconstructing the others. Systematic demonization of Shiites in government-controlled media has further widened the Sunni-Shiite divide. Anything short of genuine dialogue and demonstrable reforms can only produce further discontent and turbulence.

On the other side of the Gulf, non-Arab Iran saw poor conditions further deteriorate over the past year, particularly for religious minorities, especially Baha'is, Protestant Christians, and Sufis. May 14 marks the five-year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Baha'i leaders, the longest-serving prisoners of conscience in the country. More than 100 other Baha'is languish in jail while at least a dozen Christians are in prison for their faith, including Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini -- detained since July 2012 --whose health is rapidly failing in solitary confinement. Several Sufis are serving prison terms for religious activity online, among other baseless charges, and Sunnis report harassment and still are denied a mosque in Tehran. As elections approach next month, there's a likelihood of increased scapegoating of religious minorities and dissident Shiite clerics, since the basis of the government's repression is survival, on the one hand, and punishing those who dissent, on the other.

The Iraqi government continues to stoke sectarian tensions in the country, which is wreaking havoc on Shiites, in particular, with impunity. The smallest religious minorities -- Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean Mandaeans -- whose populations were decimated after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, continue to live in fear of assaults by non-state actors. Increasing sectarian rhetoric and violence in Syria has resulted in more frequent targeting of Muslim and Christian clerics, their places of worship, and religious minority communities. The killing of a top Sunni cleric by a suicide bomber at a Damascus mosque in March and the kidnapping last month of two bishops in Aleppo serve as stark reminders.

In a Middle East policy speech delivered two years ago, President Barack Obama committed the United States to a stronger religious freedom policy: "Our support for these principles [including freedom of religion] is not a secondary interest ... it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic, and strategic tools at our disposal." It is time for the United States to fulfill this vow.

There is one small, but important, step the U.S. government can take immediately. The president and Secretary of State John Kerry should use their bully pulpit to speak out with far more frequency on religious prisoners of conscience, and not just obvious cases like U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini or Baha'i leaders held by the main U.S. adversary in the region, Iran. Close ally Saudi Arabia consistently gets a pass, and this needs to end. Since early 2012, the Saudis have jailed or detained several individuals for apostasy and blasphemy, including Hamza Kashgari, Raif Badawi, and Turki al-Hamad. It's time for Obama and Kerry to call for their release -- and others like them -- too.

Dwight Bashir is Deputy Director of Policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The views expressed here are his own, and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @DwightBashir.

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