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Report: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Ahead for Religious Freedom Worldwide

USCIRF 2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 28, 2020.

A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.

And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.

Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”

“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”

Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.

Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.

To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.

In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.

Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:

  • 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
  • 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
  • 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
  • 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
  • 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  • 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
  • 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
  • 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
  • 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan

Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”

Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?

The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.

Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?

First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.

One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.

It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.

We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.

What happens if you disagree about the designations?

The nine commissioners…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

Closing the Bible Gap in the Gulf

Bible Engagement Gulf
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source Images: Pexels

This article first published at Christianity Today, on February 5, 2020.

Joining 80 leaders from 24 countries in Washington, DC, last September, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) announced 2020 to be the Global Year of the Bible.

“Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said WEA general secretary Ephraim Tendero. “In contrast to the sacred writings of many other traditions, the Bible is meant to be read and understood by all people.”

But what if they cannot read? This is the case for up to 40 percent of the 1.5 million Telugu-speaking workers in the Gulf states. Having dropped out of school in their native India, these migrants find that the crowded labor camps of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain offer the best opportunity to support their families back home.

But having come to the glitzy Gulf to gain a meager share of petrodollars, many find also the spoken—and storied—words of Jesus.

In 2019, the Bible Society of the Gulf (BSG) was awarded “Best Mission Project” by the United Bible Societies (UBS). Honored in the category of “Focusing on Audiences,” BSG’s pioneering audio and storytelling work among illiterates distinguished it among the 159 UBS branches worldwide.

“We help migrant workers rediscover themselves as children of God,” said Hrayr Jebejian, BSG general secretary. “Through the faith and hope of scripture, they gain the strength to navigate their many challenges.”

Jebejian’s book, Bible Engagement, noted during the UBS ceremony, described the long working hours, high rates of suicide, and…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Current Events

India through Egyptian Eyes

Mohamed Abla
Mohamed Abla

This article was first published at The Media Project.

Early Saturday morning, with a heavy heart Mohamed Abla traced his whimsical silhouettes with only a few looking on. Everywhere along his stretch of the 150 foot wall surrounding the famed Khan Market in New Delhi, folk art inspired images of children, animals, and birds burst into life. Previously drab and barren, the wall previously served as a garbage dump and public urinal. Over the past three years the Delhi Street Art group has been transforming similar locations of urban blight into monuments of community pride. But on this occasion their 62-year-old Egyptian guest felt compelled to add a sullen reminder.

He drew a stick figure of the Eiffel Tower, and enclosed it in a circle.

Paying homage to Paris through Jean Jullien’s image, Abla could have thought of Egypt. Five thousand kilometers from home, his native land has also witnessed terrorist atrocities hammering away at the effort to regain stability. For the past five years revolution has jolted the street and national psyche alike. But instead of lamenting Cairo, Abla ached for India.

“I felt that Indians were worried about terrorism,” he said, “having experienced it themselves in the past. Paris was a stark reminder.”

It can sometimes take the soft heart of an artist to commiserate with a people not one’s own. But Abla’s attachment to India runs deeper than just creative sentimentality. For the past seven years he has visited frequently, dazzled by the assortment of colour and smell, bewildered by the proximity of tradition and technology. His eyes and his canvas soaked in both big city and ancient village. He noted the simplicity of people and the grandeur of temples.

And his memories poured through his paintbrush.

“The eyes through which an artist sees another culture are always fascinating,” said Sanjay Bhattacharyya, India’s Ambassador in Egypt, opening the resulting exhibition at the Maulana Azad Center for Indian Culture, in Cairo. “Abla has shown us things we haven’t seen.”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project, including more paintings and the artist’s history.

Abla Artwork
Arabic: Delhi Streets
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Asia Lapido Media Published Articles

An ‘Arab Spring’ Moment in India

P.V. Rajagopal

This blog does not venture outside the Arab world very often, but today I will share a story I helped edit for Lapido Media. Sunny Peter is the author and reports on an ‘Arab Spring / Occupy Wall Street’ moment from India.

Of course, India is the originator of much non-violent theory and practice, and has much to teach the above mentioned imitators.

The story that follows is especially informative. Some of the Arab Spring has turned violent. The Occupy movement seemed like a party. Both relied simply on filling up a space and waiting.

By contrast, this India achievement is much more proactive. It starts as a march, requiring substantial effort on the part of protestors. Then, as a march, it takes time. Not only does this maximize media attention, it leaves room for negotiation.

Please enjoy the story that follows, and click here for the original article on Lapido.

———————-

Recalling the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, 50,000 mostly lower-caste Indians marched over 120 kilometers to secure a comprehensive government agreement on land reform. A ten point document in lieu of a promised National Land Reform Act was signed by India’s Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and movement leader P.V. Rajagopal in the presence of cheering protestors.

Rajagopal is the founder and president of Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement working for land and forest rights. Several hundred other Indian and international community-based groups, civil rights organizations, NGOs, and aid organizations also supported the march.

It was a struggle ‘for dignity, security, and identity’, according to Rajagopal in an Ekta Parishad press release.

The connection to Gandhi was deliberate. The march began on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, which is also the International Day of Non-Violence.

Imitating Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March to the Sea, Rajagopal assembled landless, lower caste Dalits and tribal Indians from throughout the country in the city of Gawlior, 350 kilometers south of New Delhi. By October 28 over 100,000 protestors were expected to present their demands in the capital city.

Dalits are traditionally regarded as untouchables within a largely Hindu social structure in India. Although a majority of them are Hindus, in several provinces they have converted to Buddhism or other religions.

Recently, several smaller civil anti-corruption movements have disrupted New Delhi and other cities. Not wanting to see another mass descent on the capital, the Indian government began negotiations even before the march commenced.

The agreement was signed along route in Agra, over 200 kilometers away. As the crowd celebrated and dispersed, the government bought itself a six month window for implementation.

Jan Satygraha: Non-Violent Protestors

‘The deprived people are often silent spectators to their own misery,’ stated Rajagopal in a movement blog. ‘They often need someone to help them voice their concerns and fight for their rights.’

In rural India land is both a means of economic sustenance and a denominator for citizenship. A lack of property deeds is a cause of poverty, often preventing citizens from obtaining insurance for crops, loans from banks, and access to other government services.

Though few would dispute the need for a better system, even government statistics do not present uniform data for analysis. The 2009 Report by the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms is a prime example.

The report quotes surveys from different government studies, including the 1997 Draft Plan Paper. It establishes 77 percent of Dalits and 90 percent of the indigenous tribes are either de jure or de facto landless.

Despite its internal contradictions, however, the report reveals the appalling social gap inherent in rural India’s entrenched feudal hierarchy.  Large landowners invariably belong to the upper castes, while cultivators belong to the middle castes. As for lower caste agricultural workers, they found representation in the march.

Without land title, Dalits and others are subject to exploitation. Once uprooted from their homestead, many move to the slum pockets of urban centers as unskilled laborers.

Some take to violence and join armed rebel movements. In 2006 Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh called such insurgencies the ‘single biggest internal security challenge ever faced’.

These challenges and statistics belie the fact that India’s socialist-leaning policies are enshrined in the constitution, which guarantees indigenous people the right to own the land they live on. Yet according to a 2001 report from the Indian Rural Development Ministry, only 1.3 percent of arable land has been redistributed.

Past pressures on the government have not succeeded in enacting reform. Rajagopal’s October 2 march follows up on earlier non-violent protests organized by Ekta Parishad.

Dalit March

A 2007 march consisting of 25,000 people also marched 350 kilometers to highlight the plight of landless Dalits. They disbanded following a government promise to study the issue. Two different committees submitted reports to the National Land Reform Council in 2009, but it never met to examine the recommendations.

This time, government signatory Ramesh assured his personal support for the demands, though he cautioned not everything could be implemented. Still, the promise of a national land reform policy within six months is a significant improvement. An Ekta Parishad press release states this could assure land title for up to 2.5 million people.

An extra 75,000 protestors makes a difference. It also reflects the philosophy of Rajagopal.

‘A country like India where problems are so many will demand larger mobilization to bring about basic change,’ he states on Ekta Parishad’s website.

‘We are trying to address change at the social and economic level. We are also interested in strengthening a process of participatory democracy and responsible governance.’

Responsible government is best assured through transparent institutions, but Rajagopal is prepared to continue the mobilization as necessary.

‘If nothing happens in six months we will assemble here in Agra and march to Delhi,’ he stated to the Indian press.

Considering the abysmal record of land reform over 65 years of independence, it remains to be seen how much the government can accomplish in six months.

If not, Agra is just a hiatus in a long struggle.

All photos courtesy of Ekta Parishad

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