The United States is painting a bleak portrait of religious freedom, with violations in countries including North Korea, Iran, Russia, Myanmar and China, while praising Uzbekistan for its progress in respecting people’s fundamental rights.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday released the State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom.
The top U.S. diplomat announced that Uzbekistan is not designated by the U.S. as a “Country of Particular Concern” for the first time in 13 years.
“This past year, the [Uzbekistan] government passed a religious freedom 'road map.' Fifteen hundred religious prisoners have been freed, and 16,000 people that were blacklisted for their religious affiliations are now allowed to travel,” Pompeo told reporters.
The secretary of state designates a “Country of Particular Concern" if there are severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Nations are subject to punitive measures by the U.S. under such designations.
The State Department added a special section on what American officials said are the “staggering scope of religious freedom abuses in Xinjiang” to this year’s report on China.
“In Xinjiang province in particular, the mass detainment of more than 1 million Chinese Muslims is an outright atrocity,” Pompeo said.
U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said he “fully supports” placing sanctions on Chinese video surveillance companies using security cameras and facial recognition systems against Uighurs — Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
“The U.S. has China as a Country of Particular Concern on religious freedom. And we have sanctions that are associated with this,” Brownback told VOA in a briefing.
“Part of it is criminal surveillance equipment that's already in that list of sanctioned products," he said.
The Trump administration is reportedly considering restricting Chinese video surveillance giant Hikvision’s ability to buy American technology for the company’s role in the surveillance and mass detention of Uighurs.
The report said “multiple media and NGOs estimated that since April 2017, the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim groups.”
"The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding,” Pompeo said.
On North Korea, the report said Pyongyang has been denying people’s rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, citing an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under "horrific" conditions.
“According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state,” the State Department said of Pyongyang in its annual report.
Since 2001, North Korea has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
On Nov. 28, 2018, the secretary of state redesignated North Korea as a CPC that is subject to punitive measures by the U.S.
In the Middle East, the report said the government of Iran continues to “harass, interrogate and arrest” members of religious minorities.
“In Iran, the regime’s crackdown on Baha’is, Christians and others continues to shock the conscience,” Pompeo said Friday.
“The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. According to the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of political prisoners compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners,” the report said.
Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” since 1999.