Global status of religious liberty 'dire,' House lawmakers warn

A woman holds a crucifix outside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Mexico City Aug. 16, 2022, as she takes part in a protest to demand respect for religious freedom and an end to the persecution of the Catholic Church and the opponents of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. (OSV News photo/Edgard Garrido, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) ─ U.S. House lawmakers called the global status of religious liberty "dire" during a hearing July 18, citing concerns across the globe from China to Nicaragua.

At a hearing of the Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations titled, "The Dire State of Religious Freedom Around the World," lawmakers identified several countries where religious freedom is "under serious assault," subcommittee chairman Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said.

"Tragically, billions of people around the world -- half of the world's population -- are not able to practice their faith freely," Smith said at the hearing. "Many are persecuted by oppressive governments or extremist groups -- brutally attacked, tortured, jailed, and even slaughtered for their beliefs."

Some of the countries identified by lawmakers on the panel include China, where Smith said the "Chinese Communist Party is committing horrific crimes against believers, including genocide against Uyghur Muslims," and Nigeria, where Smith said he has "seen firsthand the aftermath of Boko Haram's destruction of churches and mosques."

"While on paper Nigeria has robust protections for all religions, violations of religious freedom are escalating," he said. "Extremist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS West Africa commit indiscriminate violence against those they consider to be infidels. In the Middle Belt, Fulani Muslim extremists target and kill predominantly Christian farmers in brutal raids."

Smith also took aim at "the Ortega regime's brutal persecution of the church in Nicaragua," referencing the committee's earlier examination of what it called Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's anti-Catholic persecution.

"I remain deeply concerned for Bishop Álvarez, who was recently released only to be rearrested for bravely refusing to leave his country," Smith said in reference to Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced in February to 26 years in prison the day after he refused to be deported to the U.S. with more than 200 other Nicaraguan political prisoners.

"The Ortega regime is attempting to silence the Catholic Church as the single most important independent institution remaining in Nicaragua, but it will not succeed," Smith continued. "I am committed to doing everything possible to urge the release of all Nicaraguans imprisoned for their faith."

"The challenge we face today is clear: to protect and expand freedom of conscience, the ability to freely believe or not to believe, in the face of the forces of authoritarianism and exclusion," Rep. Susan Wild, D-Pa., said during remarks at the hearing. She noted these forces "have gained momentum in far too many corners of the world, including right here at home."

"I am convinced that people of all faiths and backgrounds can find common ground in our most precious common resource, our democracy," Wild said.

"When authoritarian forces attempt to use religion as a weapon to target specific groups of people, or to target our multiracial, multicultural democracy itself," she said, "let us reject those forces with one voice across religious, political and social lines."

When Smith told the witnesses that their testimony was important and he did not want to limit them to the five-minute opening statements that had each been allotted, Wild quipped the subcommittee's hearings often run long because of "the courtesies of our chair," prompting laughter in the room.

Witnesses included Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Eric Patterson, president of the Religious Freedom Institute; the Rev. Susan Hayward, associate director of the Religious Literacy and the Professions Initiative at Harvard Divinity School's Religion and Public Life Program; and Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

The witnesses described challenges to religious liberty across the globe, with Rabbi Cooper describing the U.S. international religious freedom commission's recent annual report on "governments (that) engage in or tolerate, systematic, ongoing and egregious, violations of religious freedom." He said Nigeria remains of concern to the group as "religious freedom conditions have remained abysmal with state and non-state actors committing particularly severe violations against both Christians and Muslims."

Smith, who is Catholic, said religious liberty is "one of America's founding ideals -- a cornerstone of our democracy -- and it is an internationally recognized human right."

"It is the right to practice one's religion according to the dictates of one's own conscience," he said. "This God-given right -- like all fundamental human rights -- flows from the innate dignity and value of every human being, and it deserves to be protected everywhere -- without exception."

Promoting religious freedom, he said, is a "pillar of U.S. foreign policy."

"Assaults on religious freedom are a major threat to U.S. national security, and they are intensifying. The worst violators of religious freedom globally are often the biggest threats to our nation -- and that is no coincidence," he said. "Authoritarianism is on the rise, with oppressive governments cracking down on religious minorities that are seen as a challenge to power."

Smith also expressed particular concern about "the rising tide of antisemitism worldwide," calling it "cause for serious alarm."

"With no sign of abating anywhere, Jewish women, men and children continue to suffer bias, cruelty, hate and violence simply because they are Jewish," he said. "And that this pernicious manifestation of evil needs to be exposed and more effectively combatted. The purveyors of antisemitism never take a holiday -- nor should we."
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Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.


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