Report shows 'egregious' religious freedom violations in Syria

Participants at a prayer vigil for peace in Syria in St. Peter's Square on Sept. 7, 2013. Credit: Lauren Cater/CNA.

The U.S. government should designate Syria as a “country of particular concern” due to “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” in its ongoing conflict, a global religious liberty group said.

“The existing humanitarian disaster and egregious human rights and religious freedom violations pose a serious danger to Syria’s religious diversity post-conflict,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2014 report.

The commission blamed “the collective actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime, internationally-recognized opposition groups, and extremist and U.S.-designated terrorist groups.”

The religious freedom commission is an independent, bipartisan group that makes recommendations to the president, Congress and the State Department. The U.S. State Department can accept or reject the recommended designations, which can be cause for sanctions or other penalties.

Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, it has “devolved largely into a sectarian conflict, exacerbated by the actions of the Bashar al-Assad Regime,” the commission report said.

It stated that Syria’s Sunni Muslims largely associate all members of the Alawite Islamic group with the government of Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite. For their part, many Alawites and Christians support the government for fear of the extremist and terrorist groups.

The U.N. and the U.S. government have charged that Syria’s government has committed crimes against humanity, including killings, rape, torture of prisoners, chemical weapons use, and the withholding of food and other aid. They also say the Syrian government has targeted Sunni Muslims and other individuals or groups while its “indiscriminate” shelling of civilian areas has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

Internationally-recognized opposition military groups have also committed religious freedom violations, the commission said, stating that the Syrian National Coalition has not effectively represented religious minorities and that its military units have at times worked with terrorist groups in military actions.

Other groups the U.S. government designates as terrorists, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have targeted religious minority communities, including Christians and Alawites, the report continued.

Christians in Syria have been attacked, their homes have burned down and some have been forced to convert to Islam. Two Orthodox bishops are still missing after being kidnapped, while a group of nuns was held captive for over three months.

Some extremist groups support the creation of an Islamic state and have established Shariah courts in areas under their control. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has forced about 3,000 Christians in Raqqa province to pay a “protection” tax or convert to Islam or be killed.

An August 2013 attack of 20 extremist groups in Latakia province killed 190 civilians and took 200 hostage, with most of the victims being Alawite Muslims.

Some U.S.-designated terrorist groups, including Hezbollah and Shabiha, support the government and especially target Sunni Muslim civilians, including women and children, “in the name of the regime.” The report cited a May 25, 2012 massacre of 108 Sunni Muslims, including 49 children, in Syria’s Houla region.

The religious freedom commission also considered the situations in other countries.

It recommended that the U.S. government continue to designate as countries of particular concern Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. It repeated its 2013 recommendations that Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam be added to the government list.

Additionally, the international religious freedom commission listed 10 countries in a second tier group that deserves increased U.S. government attention: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.

Turkey and Malaysia are new to this second list.

The commission said that Turkish secularism requires “absolute state control” over religion in a way that leads to government interference in religion. All religious groups face limits on ownership and maintenance of places of worship, clergy training, and religious education. These limits pose a particular problem for the ancient Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Turkish use of religious affiliation on national identity cards, social discrimination, anti-Semitism and religious freedom violations in Turkish-occupied Cyprus were also noted as causes for concern.

Malaysia has inadequate protections for religious minorities and ethnic Malays who change their religion, the report said, also pointing to bans on some publications and religious groups, some of whose members face harassment or arrest.

The document also examines the status of religious freedom in other countries that do not fall into either of the two tiers, but still merit concern. These countries include Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka, and Western Europe.

Venezuela has been dropped from the report, while the Central African Republic, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka are new to this third group.

Following a March 2013 coup in the Central African Republic, opposing Christian and Muslim militias have formed, with some militias targeting individuals based on religious affiliation for killing, torture and rape. The country would meet the standard to be named a “country of particular concern,” but there is no government to hold accountable.

Kyrgyzstan’s government restricts the registration of some religious groups and restricts the activities of Muslim and other groups it considers to be threats to national security, the report noted.

In Sri Lanka, extremist Buddhist monks and laity affiliated with Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups have attacked religious minorities, including Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Reports indicate that government officials and police did not stop the attacks and in some cases participated in them.

Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stressed the importance of U.S. action in promoting and defending global religious liberty.

“With religious freedom abuses occurring daily around the world against people of all faiths and those without religious faith, the United States must by words and deeds stand in solidarity with the persecuted,” George said April 30.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right recognized by international law that guarantees to all human beings the freedom to believe or not believe as their conscience leads, and live out their beliefs openly, peacefully, and without fear,” he said.


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