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U.S. religious freedom commission calls for criminal prosecution of Islamic State
A U.S. government commission is calling for international prosecution of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, over the militant group's attacks on Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
A U.S. government commission is calling for international prosecution of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, over the militant group's attacks on Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The request is a first for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2015 report on the state of religious freedom around the world.

But the independent commission's chairman sees some areas of optimism despite the extreme strains on world religious freedom from "non-state actors" such as ISIS and the persecution of Christians and others in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia.

"In some senses, I'm more optimistic about U.S. policy" because a new State Department ambassador covering the area has a strong track record on religious liberty issues, said Katrina Lantos Swett, a human rights activist who chairs USCIRF.

Lantos Swett also said positive signs could be found in the recent peaceful transition between elected governments in Nigeria, positive actions by the new government of Sri Lanka in the area of religious freedom and the interest of other governments and parliaments worldwide in the subject.

The 17-year-old commission was created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act and "monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad." The panel offers policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress, according to its website.

Among the key issues highlighted in the annual report are reactions to blasphemy laws in several Islamic countries; the displacement of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and the Central African Republic, as well as Burma; and the rise of non-state actors who are often "among the primary perpetrators of egregious religious freedom and human rights violations," as a summary of the report's findings noted.

Call for prosecution

The USCIRF report contains the call for the International Criminal Court to bring charges against the Islamic State for attacks on religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

"The non-state actors choose to be more brutal and more unrestrained in the actions that they take against targeted groups," Lantos Swett said. "When you are dealing in a world where uncontrolled, uncontainable and extremely violent non-state actors are ranging so freely that has created an even more frightening situation for religious freedom."

She added that the displacement of minority religious communities in the Middle East involving Christians, Yazidis, Assyrians and others was another pernicious situation. USCIRF reported more than 2 million persons had been internally displaced in Iraq under the Islamic State offensive, while more than 6.5 million persons are internally displaced in Syria, along with 3.3 million Syrians who are now refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.

"When you have that many people fleeing religious conflicts and ethnic cleansing, it's not only a tragedy in its own right, but also incredibly destructive to the region," Lantos Swett said. The situation "is also a humanitarian crisis and has created a political uncertainty and volatility that puts the whole region at risk."

The dysfunctional Central African Republic's government, Lantos Swett said, has created a "religiously motivated humanitarian crisis" involving the displacement of 1 million people in religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians.

In Nigeria, she said, the actions of Boko Haram, widely described as an Islamist extremist group, have created similar displacements among Christians in parts of the country.

Countries of concern

According to the USCIRF report, the Asian nation of Burma, formerly known as Myanmar, remains a concern where 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and at least 100,000 largely Kachin Christians are internally displaced. The Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes, the report stated.

"While the government, at times, denounced violence and incitement, its lack of strong and consistent leadership to condemn intolerance enabled abuses to continue relatively unchecked," USCIRF stated. "Throughout 2014, the expansion of Internet availability and social media played a role in propagating expressions of hatred and spurring violence directed against minority populations."

Since 1999, the State Department has designated Burma a "country of particular concern" over its human rights violations, and USCIRF recommends continuing that status. The commission's report noted that Turkmenistan, which has enacted harsh laws governing religious expression, was added to the list of CPC-designated states in 2014.

The commission report said that China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan were also named to the State Department's CPC list, while recommendations to add the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam have not yet been implemented.

Improving picture

Lantos Swett said she was encouraged by the confirmation of Rabbi David Saperstein, an activist in the Reform Judaism community, as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Attached to the State Department and only an ex-officio member of USCIRF, Saperstein has roots in the commission, she said.

Saperstein is an "excellent new Ambassador-at-Large, who served as chair of USCIRF in its very early years. He is someone who has a deep personal commitment to the cause of religious freedom and appreciates the independent voice USCIRF brings to the discussion," Lantos Swett said.

"I am more optimistic about religious freedom issues receiving more attention and more focus with (him) in place" at the State Department, she said.

The USCIRF chairman said she "very much appreciated" the attention President Obama paid to religious freedom in India, both in his January 2015 visit and in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. She said she was pleased the president emphasized that "India's continued success as the world's largest democracy depends on 'not being splintered along the lines of faith.'"

The commission report is one of two the United States issues annually on the subject of global religious freedom. The State Department's own International Religious Freedom Report, also mandated by the 1998 act that established USCIRF, generally follows the release of the commission's report. While there is often broad agreement between the two documents, some critics have noted differences in emphasis, such as which countries the secretary of state designates as those of "particular concern."

Action in the current Congress may reshape the mechanics of how the U.S. approaches international religious freedom issues in the years to come. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015, which passed a House subcommittee this month, would "improve U.S. religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address anti-Semitism and religious persecution, and mitigate sectarian conflict," according to a news release supporting the measure.

The bill would create an interagency committee charged with developing a global strategy for promoting religious freedom as well as allow the president to sanction individuals for religious freedom violations, according to Deseret News columnist Jay Evensen. The measure is named in honor of former Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., who championed religious liberty during his 34 years in the House.
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