Category archives: Religious Liberty

China Sanctions U.S. Congressmen, Again

by Arielle Del Turco

August 10, 2020

The Chinese government sought to punish 11 Americans on Monday, accusing them of “behaving badly on Hong Kong-related issues.”

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) along with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) all made the list of U.S. officials and human rights advocates targeted by the Chinese government. China’s leaders have accused the United States of “interfering” in China’s internal affairs in Hong Kong. But when a global authoritarian power swallows up a free, semi-autonomous city that longs for increased democracy, the U.S. is bound to take notice.

China’s new national security law for Hong Kong has effectively eroded all freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoyed. The new law gives Chinese authorities unlimited control, and more pro-democracy activists are arrested by the day. Activists expect that the people of Hong Kong will soon endure all the same restrictions as those on mainland China, including the absence of religious freedom.

Rubio, Cruz, Smith, and the other individuals singled out by China are all outspoken supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. They called for measures including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, intended to protect the rights of the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who spent months last year protesting China’s encroaching authoritarianism.

China’s new sanctions are expected to be similar to those the U.S. placed on several Chinese leaders directly responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, including Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, and China’s director of Hong Kong affairs Xia Baolong.

Though China is clearly issuing these sanctions in retaliation for those that the U.S. put on Chinese officials last week, there is a marked difference between the two countries’ sanctions. While the U.S. sanctions Chinese officials for violating the human rights of their own people, the Chinese government sanctions U.S. officials for pointing out those human rights violations.

The Chinese government’s boldness to issue these sanctions is cause for concern. China is increasingly intolerant of anyone who speaks out against its obvious human rights abuses, and Hong Kongers are not exempt from its wrath.

The freedom-lovers of Hong Kong now feel they cannot speak for themselves. The evidence suggests that assessment is accurate. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of a popular pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, was arrested Monday. The national security law imposed on Hong Kong made it illegal to promote democratic reform. For the people of Hong Kong, it is no longer safe to publicly disagree with the Chinese government.

The U.S. politicians and officials raising concerns about how the Chinese government treats its own people have clearly struck a nerve. Last month, Rubio, Cruz, Smith, and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback were officially banned from entering China for their work to address human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

As China seeks to crack down on international criticism, U.S. government officials and activists should stand their ground and continue to be the voice for freedom-loving Hong Kongers. Now more than ever, those in free countries must speak out on behalf of those longing for freedom who are now rendered voiceless by the tight grip of Chinese suppression.

The NBA Stays Silent on China’s Atrocities While Raking in Billions

by Blake Elliott

August 7, 2020

I grew up playing basketball and have always been a huge fan of the NBA. However, I have recently become extremely disappointed in the NBA and its players for their appalling silence on how the Chinese government is treating Uyghur Muslims.

China’s atrocities against its Uyghur population are nothing new; they have been going on for a while. But the situation has just recently begun to pick up global attention after videos of hundreds of Uyghurs being blindfolded and forced onto trains, presumably to be sent into forced labor and camps, have leaked. This isn’t the only human rights issue on which the NBA has been conspicuously silent; it has a pattern of silence on human rights issues abroad. For example, it has been silent on ESPN’s recent report suggesting that the NBA’s China Academies (located in Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live) abuse their players. The NBA has also been silent while its business partner, Nike, uses Uyghur forced labor to produce shoes. The NBA’s sudden emphasis on “social justice” issues begs the question: why has the organization been silent for so long, and continues to do so, on human rights violations in China?

There are several likely reasons why the NBA has chosen to remain silent on these issues. One is how much money it makes in China. According to recent reports, around 800 million people in China watch the NBA, and the league earns an estimated $5 billion per year in China. The NBA has also signed a $1.5 billion agreement with a Chinese internet company. There is serious money to be made in China, as it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of the league’s revenue will be coming from the country by 2030.

These figures do not even account for the NBA’s business dealings with Nike. In 2015, the league signed a $1 billion deal with Nike, allowing its logo to be on all NBA uniforms. In addition, nearly 300 players have signed agreements with Nike.

Nike’s ties to China are particularly troubling. It is estimated that the Chinese government has forced at least one million Uyghurs into what are essentially labor and “re-education” camps. Leaked Chinese government orders have shown that these camps are meant to break Uyghur lineage, roots, connections, and origins and essentially eradicate them as a people. It has been reported that survivors were electrocuted, waterboarded, beaten repeatedly, and even injected with unknown substances. These atrocities cannot be denied, yet China continues to force Uyghurs to produce nearly eight million Nike shoes in these camps each year. Clearly, Nike is silent on China’s treatment of Uyghurs because they are cheap labor, allowing them to continue profiting billions of dollars each year.

Some United States senators have been attempting to draw attention to this issue. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) recently had a Twitter exchange with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in which he asked Cuban if he would condemn China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Cuban refrained from condemning China and opted to change the subject. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also has been advocating for this issue. In May, he cosponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, but even more recently, he sent a letter to the NBA asking how it would protect its players and employees who choose to speak out against the actions of the Chinese government. The NBA responded to Hawley’s letter simply by saying that it was “unable to respond to this hypothetical question” and that it has long held values of “equality, respect, and freedom of expression.”

Perhaps the league’s biggest star, Lebron James, summed the situation up best by stating that players have freedom of speech, but they have to be careful because of the negative impact that can result from speaking out. It is interesting to note that while Lebron claims that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted in support of Hong Kong protestors, was not “educated on the situation at hand,” he is evidently not educated on his own sponsor Nike’s practices or what is going on in China.

Clearly, money is more important to the NBA than speaking out against human rights violations in China. The NBA has set a precedent that no one involved in the organization may criticize China. This was made clear when they silenced Daryl Morey’s attempt to offer support to the Hong Kong protesters, and it continues to be made clear by the organization’s silence on the modern-day atrocities that China is committing. It recently came out that NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, donated the max contribution to Joe Biden’s campaign. One can only hope that Biden would not share Silver’s stance on being silent on these atrocities.

It is essential that people understand the atrocities and human rights violations being committed against the Uyghur Muslims in China. People are being sent to what many have called “concentration camps,” and one former NBA employee compared the atmosphere in Xinjiang to “World War II Germany.” Yet Nike, the NBA, and its players continue to be silent on the issue, doubtlessly due to the income they receive in China. This is wrong, and they need to continue to be held accountable.

USAID Does a World of Good for Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco , Arielle Leake

August 6, 2020

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator John Barsa knows the importance of religious freedom firsthand. Barsa is half Cuban, and his Catholic family fled Cuba for reasons which included religious repression under communism. As a result, he knows how detrimental it is when a country suppresses religious belief.

At a recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) event, Barsa made clear that promoting religious freedom is a priority for USAID. He boldly stated, “We will not shy away from calling religious persecution for what it is. No one gets a free pass for this.”

The USCIRF event explored how USAID plans to implement President Trump’s recent executive order on advancing international religious freedom. The order established a strong stance on furthering religious liberty around the world and laid out a concrete plan for progress.

USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin noted that “Since 2017 the Trump administration has made religious liberty one of its highest priorities.” Tony Perkins, USCIRF Vice Chair, added that he is “very encouraged by the people he [the president] has put in place to enforce the order.”

The order expands mandatory international religious liberty training to include more government officials, ensures the integration of religious liberty into American diplomacy, and requires the utilization of economic tools to promote religious liberty, among other provisions. It also requires the State Department and USAID to provide comprehensive action plans within 180 days of the order’s issuance.

USAID has already done much to further the cause of religious liberty. This order and the minimum of $50 million it allots will assist them in furthering that goal. Examples of USAID’s work include everything from partnering with the Greek Orthodox Church to provide job training for religious and ethnic minorities in Syria, to protecting minority religious groups in Nigeria from the atrocities committed by Boko Haram.

In Iraq, many Yazidis and Christians who were targets of religious persecution are still reluctant to return home. This week marks six years since the ISIS genocide against the Yazidi people, and many Yazidis remain displaced, living in crowded refugee camps because they do not feel safe enough to return home. USAID is committed to the vital work of ensuring these religious minorities are safe in their own homeland, eliminating the need for them to flee again.

USAID programs are aimed at preventing mass atrocities such as genocide and empowering “countries along their journey to self-reliance.” Barsa said that USAID recognizes “when governments suppress freedom of religion, they prevent entire segments of society from making meaningful contributions to their country’s political and economic development.”

USAID has begun a new partnership initiative bringing a positive change to their approach. The goal of this initiative is to expand the organization’s base by working with more community-based organizations. This involvement with organizations at the grassroots level will allow USAID to gain more of a cultural understanding of the best ways to promote religious liberty in each area. Barsa calls this approach “good government” because it allows USAID to work with people in the community who know what is going on. In the end, it will lead to more effective assistance and hopefully yield significant results.

The American people can be proud of the generous aid we provide to communities in need around the world. Money is a powerful tool, and when used for good, it can make a world of difference.

The good work that USAID is doing is rarely reported in the media, but it deserves attention and appreciation. President Trump’s executive order on advancing religious  freedom, in addition to the new programs being implemented, such as the partner initiative, will make USAID’s work more potent and will promote the freedom for all people to believe as they choose.

Arielle Leake is a Policy & Government Affairs intern focusing on religious liberty.

Pakistan’s Religious Injustice: Prayers and Pressure Needed

by Lela Gilbert

August 5, 2020

Once again, Pakistan is in the news. Unsurprisingly, the news is bad. And even less surprisingly, the latest news from that troubled country centers around religion—more specifically the lack of religious freedom in Pakistan.

This past week, an American citizen was shot dead in Peshawar, and he didn’t die in a dark alleyway or in a terrorist attack. No, according to CNN, “Tahir Ahmed Naseem, 47, died on Wednesday… after a member of the public walked into the courtroom and opened fire in front of the judge, according to officials.”

Naseem, who belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, had been charged with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under the Pakistan penal code. And before a judge could decide on his fate, he was assassinated by an Islamist thug.

Clearly, blasphemy certainly isn’t a deadly crime in North America. Indeed, during recent violence across the U.S., relentless insults have been hurled at Christians and Christianity, whether in word or deed. Statues of priests and missionaries have been toppled, sanctuaries and religious schools vandalized, and at least one historic mission torched. Meanwhile, verbal abuse of God-fearing Jews is common parlance in anti-Israel protests and on social media.

However, blasphemy in Pakistan is another story. Blasphemy has become a deadly preoccupation of the country’s radical Muslims, whose constitution provides them full opportunity to incite violence and when possible, to imprison or kill anyone accused—most often falsely—of insulting Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, or the Koran, Islam’s religious holy book.

A former member of the Pakistani parliament and my courageous friend and journalist, Farah Ispahani told me,

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have become more pernicious and dangerous as the society at large has become more extremist and unwilling to share space with those of other beliefs like Pakistan’s Christians, Hindus and Sikhs – and even those of the same faith, but of different sects like Ahmadi and Shia Muslims. There is still a majority of Pakistanis who will not kill someone who believes or practices differently, but those of other faiths have become fearful of armed jihadi groups, and the madrasahs the killers come from.

Her statement has been confirmed by an article in the New York Times with the headline, “Poor and Desperate, Pakistani Hindus Accept Islam to Get By.” According to the story, in June dozens of Hindu families converted to Islam in a mass ceremony. “What we are seeking is social status, nothing else,” one of the new converts candidly told a reporter.

In an interview for the Times report, Ms. Ispahani explained, “The dehumanization of minorities coupled with these very scary times we are living in — a weak economy and now the pandemic — we may see a raft of people converting to Islam to stave off violence or hunger or just to live to see another day.”

Most Christians in Pakistan are unlikely to convert to Islam, but they are more than aware of the risks they face every day. This, not only thanks to the dehumanization they experience, but also in dread of false blasphemy accusations.

Blasphemy accusations can result if a non-Muslim speaks an unkind word against a neighbor or posts a careless insult on social media. But more than often, there’s no real offense to begin with. Such charges can emanate from the lies and libels of jealous neighbors, or from false statements made by mocking adolescents, or even from winning the jackpot at a card game.

Meanwhile, winning a case against false accusations in Pakistan is another story. As the story of Tahir Naseem makes clear, the legal system provides no protection nor opportunity for a fair trial. How did an armed fanatic find his way into Naseem’s courtroom and manage to shoot him dead? It was possible because vigilantes have virtually free reign in Pakistan. Christians accused of blasphemy have as much to fear from fanatical mobs as from unjust judges.

Who can forget the tragic story of Asia Bibi? A simple farmworker whose initial offense was drinking water from a common cup with other berry-pickers, she ended up on death row for nine years on false blasphemy charges. She was eventually freed and fled the country, thanks to a widespread international outcry.

Yet even though she escaped, Asia Bibi’s life was destroyed and her false charges ended up costing the lives of two government officials who tried to defend her. Both prominent politicians, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for Christian minorities, and Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, were assassinated in 2011 for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, and for speaking out in Asia Bibi’s defense.

Pakistan is, indeed, a “country of particular concern,” as re-designated by USCIRF in December 2019, “for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” Meanwhile, Open Doors listed Pakistan as #5 on its 2020 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians in the world.

So what can we do? We need to make our voices heard. Let’s encourage our legislators, the State Department and the White House to take a firmer hand in negotiating with the radicalized state of Pakistan. Let’s share the facts on social media. Let’s alert our pastors and our Bible study groups.

When it comes to religious freedom, let’s keep the old saying in mind: “Act as if everything depends on you and pray as if everything depends on God.”

Remembering ISIS’ Yazidi Genocide, Six Years Later

by Arielle Del Turco

August 3, 2020

Six years ago today, ISIS invaded the Sinjar region in northern Iraq, the quiet homeland of the Yazidi people. It only took a few hours for ISIS to seize Sinjar City and kidnap or kill all who were unable to flee in time. Those who did manage to escape ran to Mount Sinjar without food, water, or medical care, with ISIS hot on their heels.

An ancient religious group familiar with being persecuted by their neighbors, Yazidis had lived simple lives in the rural region. But the attacks by ISIS would have long-lasting consequences.

It took U.S. airstrikes to push the ISIS militants back as Kurdish forces made a safe passageway for Yazidis to descend Mount Sinjar later that month. But in the heat well over 100 degrees, hundreds of Yazidis—many of them children and infants—had already died on the mountain despite airdrops with aid from the U.S. and other military forces.

Meanwhile, ISIS attacked Yazidi villages in the surrounding area. Upon capture, the men and women were separated. The men who refused to convert to Islam were rounded up to be shot and killed. Captured women and children often heard the gunfire that killed the men of the village and saw the evidence of mass murder as ISIS fighters returned with their clothes stained by the blood of their husbands, sons, and brothers.

Militants took many of the younger women to be bought and sold as sex slaves. Women too old to enter the slave trade were shot. The region was soon littered with mass graves.

Yazidi children were forcibly converted to Islam. Thousands of boys were forced to become ISIS fighters, tortured and starved in the process. Today, many of these former child soldiers are missing arms or legs lost while fighting for their abductors.

ISIS made no secret of its desire to destroy the religious minority group it called “pagan” through the use of forced conversion, enslavement, and mass killings. The overwhelming evidence of ISIS’ intent to eradicate religious minorities prompted the United States to officially declare the Islamic State attacks on Iraq’s Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities a genocide in 2016.

Thankfully, the terrorists’ genocidal efforts were unsuccessful, and many Yazidis remain to tell the story of their people. Yet, the painful legacy of genocide lingers, and ISIS’ brutal campaign still haunts the survivors.

Today, an estimated 2,800 women and children who were kidnapped by ISIS remain missing. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis are still displaced, living in camps with minimal resources. As U.S. officials look to develop policy and foreign aid priorities in the Middle East, every feasible effort should be made to help the survivors of genocide.

August 3, 2014 is now remembered as the day ISIS began its genocide against the Yazidi people. Most days dedicated to commemorating genocides remember atrocities that happened decades or centuries ago. This remembrance day is different because the Yazidi genocide happened a mere six years ago. The horror is still within our recent memory, and the survivors are still in need of help.

ISIS is no longer the focus of the American news cycle, but we would be remiss to forget the victims of genocide so quickly, especially those who are still in need of our help. The effects of ISIS linger. As the international community looks to maintain stability in the Middle East, consideration should be given as to how best to aid and restore the religious communities ISIS worked to destroy.

Lessons in Perseverance from the Life of William Wilberforce

by Worth Loving

July 29, 2020

The abolition of slavery. Women’s suffrage. Civil rights for black Americans. None of these reforms happened quickly. They only came about through years of dedicated efforts from people who refused to give up, despite overwhelming odds.

As we fight to protect life, family, and religious freedom, we can find inspiration in the lives of men and women who never gave up fighting for causes they believed in. One such individual was the great statesman William Wilberforce. Wilberforce played a central role in the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, but he did not see his reforms implemented within a few weeks or months. In fact, it took decades for Wilberforce’s ultimate goals to be accomplished. He experienced many crushing defeats yet remained steadfast in his pursuit. As we work toward reforms in the present, we can learn much from the life and example of William Wilberforce.

Born into an affluent British family, Wilberforce attended St. Johns College in Cambridge, where he became close friends with future prime minister William Pitt. Raised in a Christian home, Wilberforce drifted away from his religious upbringing as a young man. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a student, Wilberforce was elected to Parliament. Pitt followed his friend to Parliament, becoming the youngest prime minister in British history at the age of 24.

The first few years of Wilberforce’s parliamentary career were mostly uneventful, although he was known as an eloquent speaker who frequented bars with drinking and gambling. It wasn’t until 1785 that things began to change. Influenced by his friend Isaac Milner, Wilberforce rediscovered the Christianity of his youth. Over the next few years, Wilberforce’s newfound faith sparked a strong desire for humanitarian reform. Yet Wilberforce wrestled with whether he should leave Parliament and devote himself to full-time Christian ministry. He reconnected with his childhood pastor John Newton, a former slave trader who became an influential adviser to Wilberforce. Around this time, Wilberforce was also approached by Thomas Clarkson, co-founder of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, about taking up the cause in Parliament. Through the counsel of Newton, Pitt, Clarkson, and notable antislavery groups like the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce was persuaded that he could still do God’s work while remaining in politics. Around this time, he wrote the following in his journal: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” [i.e., society].

At the time, calling for the abolition of the slave trade was deeply unpopular, given the strong economic interests many influential businessmen and members of Parliament had in the British West Indies. Over the new few years, Wilberforce and Clarkson embarked on an unprecedented public awareness campaign across Great Britain. Clarkson visited the ports where slave ships docked, taking detailed notes from crew members about the deplorable conditions slaves endured aboard ship. He also took measurements of the small quarters in which slaves were housed and gathered shackles and branding irons to demonstrate to the public how slaves were being treated. In 1787, Clarkson published a booklet titled A Summary View of the Slave Trade and of the Probable Consequences of Its Abolition, detailing the horrific conditions slaves endured while aboard the ships. Clarkson began traveling the country, distributing leaflets describing these conditions. In 1789, Wilberforce used Clarkson’s evidence in a powerful speech before the House of Commons to present his first bill for the abolition of the slave trade. While Parliament did not act on his bill, public opinion was starting to change. In 1791, the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade distributed leaflets calling upon the public to boycott sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies. Consequently, around 300,000 British citizens stopped buying the sugar, resulting in a significant loss of profit to companies that used slave labor in the West Indies.

Across the English Channel, trouble was brewing in France. Parliament was soon consumed with protecting Britain from the violent revolution engulfing France. That revolution resulted in an overthrow of the French government and eventually culminated in Napoleon’s rise to power. The British political establishment often viewed abolitionists like Wilberforce in the same light as the radicals leading the French Revolution. During this time, Wilberforce was slandered, libeled, and even received death threats. To compound his difficulties, Wilberforce battled an intestinal disease (believed today to be colitis) that prevented him from fulfilling his parliamentary duties from time to time. Despite these setbacks, Wilberforce remained resolute in his quest to end the slave trade.

Year after year, Wilberforce would present a motion in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Although some of the margins were narrow, his motion was defeated every single time. Wilberforce’s motions were often defeated by fellow members of Parliament who had strong economic interests in the slave trade. In a 1791 speech, Wilberforce boldly reminded his fellow members: “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” But Wilberforce remained unfazed by the defeats and continued his fight with public awareness campaigns, bringing to light the horrors of the slave trade. Wilberforce and Clarkson gathered thousands of petition signatures from enraged British citizens who demanded an end to the slave trade throughout the Empire.

By 1807, public opinion was squarely in his favor, and Wilberforce had persuaded many members of Parliament. After nearly 20 years of fighting, the Slave Trade Act was passed, and Wilberforce realized one of his two “great objects”—the end of the slave trade.

Because this bill did not free currently owned slaves, Wilberforce began calling for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in the British Empire. In 1825, Wilberforce resigned his seat in Parliament due to health reasons but continued his quest to abolish slavery. On July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the House of Commons, effectively freeing all slaves in the British Empire. William Wilberforce died three days later with the satisfaction of knowing that the cause to which he had dedicated his life had finally been accomplished.  

Wilberforce had also worked hard on his second “great object”—the “reformation of manners.” When Wilberforce began his Parliamentary career, British society was incredibly corrupt and immoral. Workers suffered poor conditions, animals were abused, and prostitution was rampant. Wilberforce had a special place in his heart for the poor and those rejected by society. By the time he died, Great Britain was a completely different place.

For more than 50 years, Wilberforce dedicated his life to building a better Great Britain. While advocating for Christians to be involved in politics, Wilberforce once said that “a private faith that does not act in the face of oppression is no faith at all.” As Christians, we are called to engage our culture and influence others for Christ. Wilberforce never attacked his opponents but instead appealed to their conscience.

Now, 187 years since Wilberforce’s death, we can draw many parallels between Wilberforce’s battles and our current ones over abortion, religious freedom, pornography, human trafficking, and many more. Since 1973, we’ve been fighting to correct the flawed decision in Roe v. Wade. While the pro-life movement has experienced many victories, hundreds of innocent unborn children are still killed every day. The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges undermines the sacred institution of marriage. And the religious liberty of Christian business owners and government employees is under increasing attack, most recently in Bostock v. Clayton County

Despite recent setbacks, we must never give up. We can find inspiration in William Wilberforce, who faced crushing defeats and vicious attacks from his opponents but never relented his fight for what was right.  We can learn much from Wilberforce’s tenacity and his unwavering commitment to the cause to which God had called him. The fight may be long and grueling, but the ultimate reward we are seeking is well worth any struggle we face now.

During the Pandemic, the Trump Administration Is Continuing to Protect Religious Freedom

by Connor Semelsberger, MPP , Jeremy Pilz

July 22, 2020

Yesterday, the Trump Administration announced further steps to protect religious freedom during the coronavirus pandemic. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the resolution of two recent complaints filed against hospitals for infringing on religious freedom.

in June 2020, OCR received a complaint from a woman named Susanna Marcus, alleging she had requested a visit from a priest for her critically injured husband, Sidney Marcus. However, Prince George’s Hospital Center of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the hospital where Sidney Marcus was admitted, denied the request. In late May 2020, Susanna and Sidney Marcus were involved in major car accident. Due to the nature of Sidney’s injuries, the couple was separated, and Sydney was placed in the intensive care unit. As a result of Sidney’s continued decline in health, Susanna requested a visit from a local priest for prayer at the hospital. The priest, however, was turned away by the hospital, based on a visitor exclusion policy adopted in response to COVID-19, despite being willing to wear any necessary personal protective equipment. In partnership with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), OCR provided technical assistance to the hospital based on federal guidance which provides that “facilities must ensure patients have adequate and lawful access to chaplains or clergy.” Following this action by OCR, Prince George’s Hospital Center came into compliance with the federal guidance and granted Sidney Marcus’s request to freely exercise his religion by allowing the Catholic priest to visit and administer the sacraments of Holy Communion and Anointing of the Sick to him.

This is significant because it concerns the ability of clergy to continue to operate and function during the coronavirus, something the administration made sure was included in nationwide guidance issued by the Department of Homeland Security. President Trump should be commended for ensuring clergy and pastors can continue to operate in this way and serve their communities during the coronavirus.

That same month, OCR also received a complaint from a medical student who was participating in rotations at the Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) in New York City. As a part of their response to COVID-19, SIUH temporarily suspended medical student rotations at the hospital. To return to rotation, SIUH required students to wear N95 respirator masks while assisting patients. As a result, SIUH informed one student that he would need to shave his beard if he wanted to return to his rotation. In accordance with the tenets of his religion, this student has not shaved his beard. HHS then stepped in to provided technical assistance to the hospital, and ultimately, they granted the student an accommodation to wear alternative protective equipment in the hospital so that he would not have to shave his beard.

These actions by the Trump administration may seem like small regulatory resolutions, but what they show is a consistent and concerted effort by this administration to protect religious freedom for all Americans. Everyone’s ability to practice their faith must be protected, and the administration is accomplishing this in concrete ways with actions like what HHS did yesterday. This also demonstrates that in times of crisis like the one our country is facing now, this administration will not protect one civil liberty at the expense of another. From the onset of the pandemic, HHS and the Department of Justice have been diligent to enforce laws protecting everything from disability rights to the right churches have to freely worship. No matter the situation our country faces, the Office of Civil Rights at HHS is on duty, protecting the guard rails of civil rights like religious freedom.

If you have a been discriminated against by a healthcare provider or government agency for your religious beliefs, please visit hhs.gov/ocr to file a complaint.

Connor Semelsberger, MPP is the Legislative Assistant at Family Research Council.

Jeremy Pilz is a Policy and Government Affairs intern focusing on federal legislative affairs, with a concentration on pro-life issues.

Christians Rejoice as Sudan Moves Toward Embracing Religious Freedom

by Arielle Del Turco

July 21, 2020

I am very pleased, God has answered our prayers,” Noha Kassa, a Christian leader in Sudan, proclaimed earlier this month in response to the repeal of Sudan’s infamous apostasy law. 

For years, Sudan had topped lists of worst violators of religious freedom in the world. But all of that changed in the spring of 2019 when the military overthrew the longstanding President Omar al-Bashir. Since then, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council has been steadily enacting reforms, including reforms recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

In July, the government repealed Article 126 of Sudanese criminal law, which prohibited apostasy and required the death penalty as punishment if the accused did not repent. Sudan is the only Islamic-majority country to repeal an apostasy or blasphemy law in the last two years.

In Muslim-majority countries like Sudan, apostasy laws are intended to keep people from abandoning Islam. Such laws are an affront to religious freedom because they prevent people from choosing and living out their faith as their conscience dictates.

Sudan’s apostasy laws became famous around the world, thanks to the case of Mariam Ibraheem. In 2014, Mariam was sentenced to death for apostasy. With a toddler at home, she gave birth to her second child in jail. Mariam had been raised by her Christian mother, though her father was a Muslim. Before marrying her Catholic husband, Mariam joined the Catholic Church in 2011.

Mariam’s case prompted an international outcry, and pressure from foreign governments eventually prompted the Sudanese government to release her. Now, the law that once sentenced her to death has thankfully been repealed.

While repealing such an oppressive law may seem like an obvious move to those of us in the West, this act required Sudanese leaders’ courage. There are radicals in Sudan who did not want to see this change happen and would prefer to see Sudan’s legacy of religious repression continue. The current Sudanese government should be applauded for its efforts to create a freer society for its people.

Apostasy, blasphemy, and anti-conversion laws continue to plague religious minorities in many parts of the world. As a part of the State Department’s effort to prioritize international religious freedom in its foreign policy, U.S. diplomats should consistently urge every government who maintains one of these laws to repeal them in diplomatic meetings.

Sudan’s move toward embracing religious freedom is worth celebrating. However, it also reminds us that apostasy laws are still on the books in several countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania. Sudan’s example proves change is possible, and it should encourage us to advocate for the repeal of laws oppressive to religious liberty everywhere they remain.

What Are “Human Rights”?

by Travis Weber, J.D., LL.M.

July 17, 2020

Seeking to address what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called a “moment of crisis” for human rights, the newly-created Commission on Unalienable Rights yesterday released a draft of its inaugural report—a report which articulates and unpacks the link between America’s founding and the very idea of human rights.

It is no secret that human rights advocacy has lost its way. The term “human rights” is often used today to refer to any number of desirable social programs or preferences—basically, anything anyone wants to cloak in noble terms. Yet such an approach strays far from the core human rights the movement sought to address in its earlier years. Hence, the new State Department commission will aim to bolster the modern human rights project initiated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in light of our founding, and recalibrate the United States’ approach to human rights promotion abroad.

Divided into three sections, the report explores the origin of America’s human rights tradition and the ways in which these rights are under threat.

First, the report provides a careful review of the country’s founding principles. It argues that America has a distinctive rights tradition, grounding the origin of an individual’s unalienable rights—rights that are unable to be taken away or given away by the possessor.

Second, the report discusses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a momentous document outlining a comprehensive view of human rights following World War II and the Holocaust. It describes how this document provides a standard of achievement for all people from all nations.

Finally, the report outlines new challenges to human rights internationally, concluding with 12 pertinent observations.

Despite all the modern talk of human rights, we face a world in which authoritarian regimes increasingly perpetuate injustices, and international human rights organizations are continually ineffective in addressing them. Human rights advocacy groups are quick to reject fundamental rights grounded in an ordered human nature in favor of a newly imagined, culturally popular set of “rights.” To the contrary, the very definition of human rights is tightly bound to the qualities and shared traits that make all of us human. This idea—though imperfectly implemented—permeated our nation’s founding, as well as subsequent human rights developments.

Yet today, the unalienable rights that founded our nation and lay at the heart of the original international human rights project are frequently attacked as “discriminatory” and “outdated”—and modern social preferences take over in the guise of “human rights.”

Meanwhile, others try to portray a moral equivalence between the United States and other human rights violators. Yet the very existence of debate domestically should help us see we are still free—compared to places that lack a debate (China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, etc.). It is there that opposition, dissent, and human rights are truly being suppressed.

The State Department is right to evaluate the scope of human rights at a time when human rights are widely championed and rarely understood. This report lays the groundwork for foundational questions to be asked and a thoughtful assessment of human rights going forward.

An understanding of what is innate to each person must inform such an assessment. Only then could the mass of humanity, with all its vast differences, even begin to agree on certain unchanging moral principles as the basis for human conduct. Moral objectivity is required in any shared endeavor to protect human rights for all human beings around the world.

For human rights work to endure, we must be able to agree on a shared definition around which we can unite and guard the term from becoming meaningless. As the report observes, the “enduring success” of human rights efforts “depends on the moral … commitments that undergird them.” The alternative is the status quo, represented by the “sad irony” that “the idea of human rights—which reflects the conviction that the positive laws of nations must be accountable to higher principles of justice—[is] reduced to whatever current treaties and institutions happen to say that it is.”

One way out of this is what the commission—whose diversity of different backgrounds and faiths should give us hope—proposes: identifying and substantively defending our shared unalienable rights. If it succeeds, we can perhaps begin reclaiming a true understanding of human rights for all, and not a moment too soon.

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith Are Banned From China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 13, 2020

A handful of U.S. congressmen woke up to an angry slap on the wrist from the Chinese government on Monday.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback are now banned from entering China, though the full scope of the new sanctions against them have yet to be revealed.

What prompted the giant authoritarian regime to target these lawmakers? Apparently, their work to address China’s many human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, “Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs and the U.S. has no right to interfere in them.”

These congressmen deserve kudos for their work. The fact that China is singling them out to be targeted means their actions to address China’s human rights issues have had an impact. China noticed their efforts and reacted. That is significant, and they should be commended.  

Cruz, Rubio, and Smith have all advocated for and co-sponsored legislation to address China’s religious freedom and human rights violations.

Rubio and Smith introduced the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which was recently signed into law. It is meant to hold perpetrators of abuses against the Uyghur people, including the systematic use of indoctrination camps, accountable for their actions.

Cruz also joined Rubio to introduce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would prevent goods produced by forced labor (suspected to be sourced by China’s brutal system of “re-education” camps) in Xinjiang from entering the United States. This will be an effective measure, and Congress should seek to pass this as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Brownback is a consistently fearless advocate for religious freedom for all people in China. He has long denounced China’s “war on faith,” reminding them “it is a war they will not win.”

The sanctions against these individuals are likely in retaliation for sanctions the U.S. placed on selected Chinese officials last week for their human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims.

But there’s an obvious difference between the sanctions the U.S. and China placed on each other’s officials. While China merely targets U.S. officials for interference in China’s human rights violations, the U.S. sanctioned Chinese officials based on actual human rights violations. 

The sanctioned Chinese officials are directly responsible for developing and enacting the dystopian campaign of repression in Xinjiang. The most high-profile individual targeted is Chen Quanguo. As the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang, Chen is responsible for building the network of “re-education” camps in which 1-3 million innocent Uyghurs and those other ethnic minorities remain arbitrarily detained. Outside of the camps, facial recognition technology, forced abortions, birth control and sterilizations, and an intense culture fear is used to control the daily lives of Uyghurs.

Chen and the other Chinese officials who were sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act, a tool designed to address global human rights violators, deserve to be singled out for their actions. But the Chinese government is not happy about this, so they are lashing out against U.S. politicians.

The reaction of the Chinese government should encourage U.S. leaders to press on as they seek to improve human rights conditions in China. Recent U.S. efforts have struck a nerve, and lawmakers and diplomats should continue to build on that momentum.

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