The Intersection of Religious Freedom and Women's Rights

The Intersection of Religious Freedom and Women's Rights

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Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and former executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, discusses the intersection of religious freedom and women’s rights around the world, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz

Commissioner, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Former Executive Director, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series.

I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.

We’re delighted to Kristina Arriaga with us to talk about the intersection of religious freedom and women’s rights around the world. Kristina Arriaga is a commission on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Before joining the Commission, she was the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a firm that defends the free expression of all religious traditions in the United States and abroad. Ms. Arriaga began her career in Washington, working for a U.S. ambassador here, Jose Sorzano, at the Cuban American National Foundation. And afterwards, served as an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where she worked to raise awareness of the plight of political prisoners. She is a recipient of the Newseum’s 2017 Free Expression Award, and was featured by The Federalist as one of seven most amazing women of 2016.

Kristina, thank you very much for being with us today. I thought if we could start with an overview of the intersection of women’s rights and religious freedom around the world.

ARRIAGA: Sure. Thank you for having me. I would like to note that the views here—that I’m expressing here are my views, and not necessarily the views of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. I will try to use my best National Public Radio voice as I speak about this, and thank you very much for having me.

I’d like to address synergies and tensions between two vital human rights, and that is religious freedom and women’s rights. I think this is a particularly poignant week to address these issues, as this week marks the third anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria. As many of you know, as of today many of those girls still remain in captivity. The terrorist group Boko Haram has made religious claims to justify its atrocities. It claims it wants to institute an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria that is particularly opposed to Western-style modern education, which they say lures people away from following Islamic teaching as a way of life.

In fact, in May of 2014, in a video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, he said: Allah instructed me to sell them. I will carry out his instructions. Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves. He said the girls should not have been in school and instead they should have been married, since girls as young as nine, he said, are suitable for marriage.

The girls’ ordeal is horrific. In 2015, a former Anglican clergyman contacted Boko Haram trying to negotiate the release of the girls, and asked to be given proof of life. Sadly, the proof of life that he was sent was a video of the girls being raped. Boko Haram claims their actions are a part of a sincerely held religious belief, beliefs Boko Haram gleaned from another terrorist organization, al-Qaida. And, in 2015, Boko Haram claimed to pledge its allegiance to ISIS, and ISIS praised the actions of Boko Haram. ISIS, as you know, has kidnapped Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites, and has enslaved the girls, women, and boys, and serially raped them, again, in the name of religion. These atrocities continue and new reports indicate that many of the girls abducted in Chibok are now forced to be suicide bombers.

We all agree—we all agree there is no doubt that these atrocities committed in the name of religion are repulsive. In fact, looking at these cases, it’s not hard to see why in 2014 Heiner Bielefeldt, the U.N. special rapporteur for religious freedom, noted: Unfortunately, the impression that freedom of religious or belief and equality between men and women allegedly constitute two essentially contradictory human rights norms seems to be widely shared.

I would like to invite you to take a step back and take a look at what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says about these two vital rights. Let’s take a moment and take a look at Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. Article 18 of the ICCPR says the same thing.

And Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief states the same, but it has a different phrasing, a phrasing that I think will be important to address perhaps during the Q&A period. It says: Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law that are necessary to protect public safety, order, health and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedom of others. That’s it on protection of freedom of religion.

As for the protection of women—and I will not read you these. You can find them in the Universal Declaration in Article 2, Article 26 of the ICCPR, and also in Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Now, some groups say that these two rights are always in conflict. And even if one sets aside the cases of Boko Haram and ISIS, there are some groups, like Freedom from Religion Foundation, that argue that organized religion always has been and remains the greatest enemy of women’s rights. So, for them, religious freedom is simply a vehicle for organized religion to continue to repress women. Feminist women in France say that the hijab is a symbol of oppression, and even women that wear it voluntarily should be forbidden from doing so.

So what happens if one takes the view that women’s rights are supreme and are always more important than religious freedom? That leaves a whole amount of—a big out of women outside of their rights being protected. For instance, what about women that voluntarily join a religion that claims that men can only—only men can occupy certain hierarchical positions, like the Catholic Church, Orthodox Jews, even the Baha’i. These religions would be in violation of international human rights laws.

So how do we resolve this. I think we are facing an unprecedented conflict for a number of a reasons. First of all, the declaration was drafted in 1948. And at the time. The drafters did not imagine the likes of Boko Haram or ISIS. In other words, the declaration did not factor in the kinds of claims that could be made or would be made by non-state actors. The declaration was also meant to deal with governments, not with terrorist groups that reach across the borders of nations.

But I think the key here is that the word “religious” in religious liberty often freezes the argument. The misperception is that religious freedom protects the religion and not the person, not the adherent. I think that thinking is religious—I think that thinking is a dangerous fallacy. In fact, it is the person who is the right-holder. And we know this for a very basic reason, and that is that our rights do not come from the state. Our rights spring from our own human dignity. This is profound, and this is why we can fight unjust laws, and this is the reason we can fight governments.

So where do we draw the boundaries? In many countries, religious freedom actually elevates women’s rights. We know, for instance, that countries that have robust religious freedom also have robust protections for women. We know in countries that do not force women to convert to their spouses’ or fathers’ religion are countries—and child brides—allow more space for women’s rights. We know in countries like Saudi Arabia, where religious interpretation of guardianship forces women to be subject to the guardian’s approval for surgery or travel, women have great difficulties participating in society. We also know that religious pluralism is the antidote to radicalization.

So what I would like to suggest, in closing, is for the international community to two things. One, I think it needs to adopt a balancing test where a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs are balanced against the compelling interests of nations to protect human rights. However, this balance must be done carefully, in such a way that the government only interferes when absolutely necessary, when it recognizes that religious identity and gender identity can both occupy the same space, and that that space need to be protected. Also, the international community must press governments to deal with non-state actors who violate the rights of women. For instance, in Nigeria it is well-known that Google Earth has already identified many of the camps where these women are being held, and yet the Nigeria government has not done enough to free these girls and women.

The international community, in short, must find a way to balance religious freedom and all the other rights listed in the declaration to makes sure that women can act according to their conscience and that the government continues to protect the individual rights of religious adherents and not the religious beliefs themselves. Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that interesting and insightful overview. Let’s open it up now to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: All right.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: Kristina, I will start while we’re waiting for questions to queue up. What do you do with some of the most pressing violations of religious freedom today, and how do those overlap with the violation of women’s rights?

ARRIAGA: Blasphemy is a very real issue. And it’s currently used in Pakistan to violate the rights of a women—a Christian woman whose name is Asia Bibi. There, many people have said that blasphemy was used as an excuse to settle property disputes. The fact is that the Pakistani government—that she has been sentenced to death. And that simply because she expressed her religious beliefs. I think that the using religious justification to mutilate women in the form FBM affects millions of girls around the world. And governments have not been forceful enough in denouncing that practice, and look the other way when it’s being practiced in their own country.

And finally, in places like Iran, you have the Baha’i seven, where leaders of the Baha’i faith are being held in prison simply because of their pacifist religious beliefs. Let me finally add also, very recently our listeners may have heard the Jehovah—the Russian government has attempted to entirely get rid of the Jehovah Witnesses in Russia. And again, because it is a pacifist religion that is not aligning with the state, and they do not participate in the political process. So those are four cases where the religious freedom of individuals are being violated.

OPERATOR: OK, we do have a question in the queue. Our first question will come from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers.

DEEN: Can you hear me? Can you hear me?


DEEN: Yes. OK, hi. Thank you for what you shared.

You spoke extensively about Nigeria. I was in Nigeria a month ago. I am on faculty with OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. And we work to deconstruct received theology. So what we did was we had about 80 Muslim and Christian leaders in a room, and we worked with them for a week, and we had awesome results. And as a Muslim woman, what was disturbing to me was the level at which they interpreted polygamy. So, in Nigeria, the intersectionality of the issue is really, really large about education, lack of, corruption, more of. And then there is this idea of polygamy.

And I think until we deconstruct some of the received theology, we will not see an end to this extremism and violence and medieval thinking. So we are, in fact, going back in July. And we like to gather religious leaders, because it’s going to be impossible to reach the people on the ground. So I don’t know, I am asking you—maybe there is a formality for this—how do we gather religious leaders, not just Nigeria, even in America, where we really delegitimize some of what is in our scripture at one point? And also, how can we have discussions on these topics through religious leaders who are willing to participate? Thank you.

ARRIAGA: Thank you so much. That’s very interesting and important work.

For literacy, (you know ?), religion believes literacy is a major problem around the world. The newly appointed special rapporteur has made several statements about it. In its most recent report, it talked about the fact that of the 100s of letters that have been submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council, there are very little documentation about the violation of FoRB practices in many countries.

I was recently in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. And in both places, religious leaders—the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar and the vice minister for Islam in Saudi Arabia claimed that they are putting in place programs to educate imams in those countries. And Al-Azhar, as you know, is the center of Islam for many countries. Many imams from around the world go there. So I think a lot of religious leaders around the world are well-aware of the difficulties having to do with lack of education on the ground. And I think that this will be a priority of the newest special rapporteur for religious freedom. And I encourage you to be in touch with him, and contact him, and tell him about your program in Nigeria.

DEEN: OK. How may I get that information?

ARRIAGA: If you email the originator of the phone call, I’m happy to send it to her and—

FASKIANOS: Yeah, you can email [email protected]. And then we will—we will connect you.

DEEN: Thank you so much. OK, bye. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And our next question will come from John Pawlikowski with the Catholic Theological Union.

PAWLIKOWSKI: Hello. Good afternoon. I was just wondering—you mentioned that in certain cases you would support the idea of government intervention on behalf of a women’s rights. Would you restrict that to national government, or there would you support some notion of a transnational effort to try to secure rights? And how would that occur if you do? Would it be—have to come through the United Nations, or whatever comments you have? Because it seems in certain situations the local government, the national government, is in fact supportive of the—what we would regard as the violation of women’s rights.

ARRIAGA: Mmm hmm. Well, I think the United Nations should certainly hold accountable many—at all of its international meetings, particularly at the United Nations Human Rights Council all of those countries that are signatories of the universal declaration of human rights should be held accountable for their actions, first of all. Second, in countries that enjoy democracy, certainly they should hold accountable anyone within their country that is violating the rights of women. For instance, as I mentioned extensively, in Nigeria. Nigeria should be forcefully holding accountable anyone that enters is borders and violates the rights of women—and it should be doing it forcefully.

Ultimately, this is indeed a difficult task. There is not a universal government that can be a watchdog and an enforcer of these actions. But one of the reasons that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, where I serve, was created by Congress over 20 years ago, was precisely to put together an annual report—which, by the way, will come out at the end of this month—in which we make recommendation to Congress, the president, and the Department of State on how to deal with each one of these countries who are violators of religious freedom, and what kind of recommendations they should put in place or talk to these countries.

So there is—there is a lot of good that can come from highlighting the plights of individuals. This is something else that we’re doing at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. We have—Congress just passed a bill, H.R. 1150, the Frank Wolf bill, that requires for us, the U.S. government, to keep a list of political prisoners around the world, people who have been imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, and make sure that we advocate for them. And in fact, each one of the nine commissioners on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has adopted one or two of those prisoners. For more information, you can go to our USCIRF website. We have evidence from prisoners that whenever their plight is highlighted, whenever their name is said to the world by any of the international bodies that monitor human rights, that their conditions, many times, improve.

So again, just to reiterate, helping our nations press these governments, but also make sure that anyone on this phone call can advocate for any of these religious freedom prisoners, and do so in a way that will have impact for the lives of these people.


FASKIANOS: Thank you.

OPERATOR: All right.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: Kristina, what gender-based solutions does USCIRF promote to respond to religious extremism?

ARRIAGA: Well, the best answer I think comes from the special rapporteur himself, who has said religious pluralism is the antidote to radicalization and extremism in these countries. We recently met with Rebiya Kadeer, the Uyghur advocate from China. She advocates for the right of this Muslim community in China. And she mentioned that, regrettably, young Uyghurs are being identified across nation lines by radicals from other countries, and are being radicalized. And the Chinese government is using that as an excuse to repress the rights of all Uyghurs.

So it continues to be an issue for many countries where ISIS, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups are reaching across borders through the internet or through, for instance, the spreading old textbooks that come from Saudi Arabia into communities that do not have a high level of literacy. And they’re radicalizing their communities. And also essentially violating the rights of women by falsely citing scriptural evidence that these women need to be repressed.

So it all comes together in many of these countries. Both in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt I met with many women who want to continue to be Muslim, who believe in Islam, but also understand that these are misinterpretations of what their religion really says, and are advocating for—again, for literacy, and also Islam literacy in their own countries.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. And then, in terms of what you—what more the United States should be doing to address religious persecution and advance religious freedom globally.

ARRIAGA: Well, the president is—has had a number of meetings with many government leaders. And the president should always have a list of individuals that he should advocate for, for religious freedom. But also in places like Cuba, there has been—as everyone on the call may know—during the last administration President Obama reestablished a relationship with the Cuban government. However, in that process it did not require for the Cuban government to make any concessions in terms of human rights or religious freedom. So currently, there are several women who get together every Sunday they call the ladies in white. And they watch to churches. And they do so to highlight the plight of their husbands or sons who are currently held for—many of them, for religious reasons. And the Cuban government continues to intercept them and many times organizes mobs of people that beat them.

In Cuba also, children who are in rural communities who claim an adherence to Christian religious beliefs are not allowed to stay for the free meal programs. They often have to walk back home for several kilometers in the tropical heat, many times to no food. The U.S. government should certainly be bringing up these issues whenever it wants to change its trading or commercial relationship with any of its trading or commercial partners. We at USCIRF, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, continue to recommend that State Department policy includes very specific requests from the governments with whom it is trading.

I’ll give you one more example. The Saudis are about to Aramco on the market. it’s about to go public. Aramco, as you know, is the largest oil company in the world. This will be, in 2018, the largest IPO to ever take place. And the international business community should certainly advocate for the Saudis to stick to their words. They have promised the United Nations many times that they’re going to get rid of this oppressive guardianship system against women. In Saudi Arabia currently, there is a religious interpretation of a Koran process and guardianship that requires men to protect women. However, that has been interpreted to mean that a woman cannot buy a car, a woman cannot drive, a woman can only have certain professions in public settings.

Starbucks, one of the most progressive companies in the world, there’s two different entrances—one for men and one for, quote/unquote, “families.” And women can only associate with their relatives in Saudi Arabia. And I’m hoping that the business community will realize that currently over 55 percent of undergraduates in Saudi Arabia are women. Over 50 percent of graduate students are also women. And they’re going to need women to have access to all aspects of society if they want to also improve their economy.

FASKIANOS: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: OK. And we do have one more question in the queue at this time.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Next up we have Suhag Shukla with the Hindu American Foundation.

SHUKLA: Hello. Am I on?


SHUKLA: OK, great.

FASKIANOS: Yes, you’re on. Go ahead.

SHUKLA: Thanks for your overview. I wanted to ask about what your thoughts might on American organizations—specifically certain Evangelical and missionary organizations—that are doing work abroad, and might be exporting more conservative views that do have an impact on women’s issues, such as access to birth control or access to, you know, certain medical services. What, if anything, can we as Americans dedicated to and working for religious freedom do on that end? And is there a place for the U.S. government to do anything?

ARRIAGA: Oh, thank you for your question. Well, it is my view that religious freedom is the ability to search for the truth. And wherever that takes you—to organized religion or no religion at all—the government has no role in intervening in that search path. Many times religious organizations go to many other countries and, in fact, spend billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid and assistance after tsunamis, after earthquakes, after many tragedies. They provide comfort and food and shelter for the homeless. And many times around the world the charities that you see taking care of the elderly are precisely religiously based. So I believe that every country benefits from having a wide-open space for religious organizations.

Now, I also understand that some religious organizations may have been perceived as trespassing the line. I think that this is an issue that can—doesn’t need to be regulated by any government entity or agency. I think these are conversations and dialogues that one can have with these organizations. And it’s up to the country in question to allow or not allow these organizations to function within their borders. I think it is a tragedy, for instance, that Russia is using anti-extremism laws to ban missionary groups from functioning in Russia. Currently if you are an adherent of many Protestant religions, you cannot even tell someone within your own religious group what time your church meeting is going to take place, because that’s considered inappropriate. And it can be punishable by law.

I think that there are a lot of concerns in India in the way that many minority religions are treated in India. I think there are a lot of issues with the new constitution in Nepal allowing for pluralism. And again, it’s a balancing act. The religious freedom claim is not absolute. In other words, you cannot claim that you’re starting a church that sacrifices people and advocate for legitimacy. It is OK for governments to say, no, that’s not appropriate. However, I think that countries benefit from having a lot of freedom when it comes to freedom of religion and thought and also freedom of expression.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question will come from Soraya Deen with Muslim Women Speakers.

DEEN: Thank you. I’m so lucky today. So I am a South Asian Muslim woman. And I’m from Sri Lanka. And as I look at my country, I’ve lived here—this is my country as well—I see an extreme form of religious movement coming up in Sri Lanka, a Wahhabi theology. And I’m just—I mean, this is even an issue that we should have addressed yesterday, not today, the urgency is so much. And what is happening—what is that we are not doing right? Because this is going to have serious consequences for Sri Lanka, I know. And I’m working actively to address votes from here. But there’s some force behind that is manipulating, for lack of a better word. And I see it. I know it. And I see my friends with whom I grew up 15 year ago, they have embraced a level of religiosity that is very disturbing.

ARRIAGA: Yes. And that continues to be a problem in many countries. But if I may say, it’s not a level of religiosity. It is radical extremism that had been fed by a number of factors. First of all, literacy. We see many countries in which the rate of literacy in the rural areas is very low. And the only countries that are exporting textbooks to these areas are places like Saudi Arabia. We at USCIRF have a pretty detailed study about textbooks in Saudi Arabia. Also Nina Shea from Hudson Institute, a very detailed study. This is something that has been of great concern for the U.S. government for some time.

In these textbooks, you will find terrible things about the LGBTQ community. You will find that Jews as referred as monkeys. You will have fabricated books about Jews, like the Protocols of Zion, propagated in these books. You will have an attack on Shia Muslims. And in many of the earlier versions, we saw that there were instructions and directions on how to kill anyone who adhered to this way of thinking of—or this religious belief. That has been a big problem in many areas. In the last 30 years, we have seen in countries like the Maldives, a change even—in the pluralistic way that Muslims and Christians and many other religions live together, and precisely an adherence to a Wahhabi philosophy, a Salafi.

What is the antidote for that? Pluralism, pluralism, pluralism. Not more freedom, but more freedom. More exchange of ideas. And then engaging with the imams, who are—who may be aware and concerned about the spread of this way of thinking. It’s a major problem around the world. It’s unfortunately extraordinarily well-funded. And it’s the creator of ISIS and Boko Haram and al-Qaida. And I think in the next several years we’re going to see either a radical increase or a radical decline of these movements, depending on what governments choose to do.

DEEN: Thank you. And on an optimistic note, I want to report to you I’m at the airport going to San Francisco. Tomorrow we are opening the second women’s mosque, an all-inclusive women’s mosque in San Francisco, in Berkley, and I will be delivering the sermon and the khutbah.

ARRIAGA: Oh, that’s fantastic.

DEEN: And, yes, thank you. Yeah, we want to build a women’s movement. And I think one of my—one of my jobs is to really explore possibilities of deradicalizing our youth with women religious leaders.

ARRIAGA: Well, I respectfully say this in front of my brother-men on the call, we women can change the world. And we need to do it. And, again, that’s not USCIRF’s official position. That’s my personal position. But we are—you know, even if we’re working, we’re at home with our kids, right? We are educating our children. We know what they learn at school. And that traditional roles for women are respected and revered all over the world. And they should be continued to be respected and revered. And I think it’s very important for women to engage. So thank you doing that. I wish you well.

DEEN: Thank you for you insights—(inaudible). Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Kristina, it would be great if you could also give us an overview of USCIRF’s prisoners of conscious project, to give people a sense of what that is.

ARRIAGA: Sure. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is the website, has nine commissioners, three appointed by the president, three by the House, and three by the Senate. And each one of us comes from different political parties. We come from different religions. In fact, we have the first Tibetan Buddhist in the—that has been appointed to the Commission, just joined, Dr. Tenzin Dorjee. Then we have all adopted a prisoner of conscious. As I—if you could give me a few minutes, and someone else can ask a question, I’m happy to pull up all the names of the prisoners that have been adopted with a short narrative. I’m sorry, my computer is being a little slow.


OPERATOR: There are currently no questions in the queue.


FASKIANOS: The other—oh, are you—I have one more question, but you can—if you’ve pulled that up on your computer we can go talk about that, and then we’ll go back to women’s rights.

ARRIAGA: OK. I’m sorry, I’m having some difficulty. But I can tell you that if people get on the USCIRF website, there will be a form—well, first of all, there will be each one of the prisoners that have been adopted, and action that individuals, groups, schools, universities can take to also adopt these prisoners. There will also be a form to fill out. So if you come from a country, or if they are—if you are aware of a person that has been arrested or detained for their religious beliefs you will be able to file a form in which we will be able to assess inclusion into a list that will be created by the Department of State for Congress.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

ARRIAGA: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: So I wanted to then move to talk a little bit about the role that religious persecution plays in the global refugee crisis.

ARRIAGA: Yes. So that is a very hot topic right now in the United States and abroad. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, before the change of administration, had already issued a report on a program called—I’m sorry—expedited removal. We at USCIRF have seen for many years that there are great difficulties for any refugee that comes to our borders. We reported on the fact that if a person comes to the United States, whether by airplane or at the border, and claims that they’re afraid to return to their country, the law says that person must be sent to an expert who knows how to interview the person, and then assess whether that person should be put in the process to have refugee status.

Regrettably, we find that there hasn’t been enough funding allocated to these programs. And there hasn’t been enough training of these patrol officers that come—that have to interview these refugees. So, for instance, we saw reports that Chinese Christians came to the border, they said they were afraid for their life because of their Christian beliefs, and the border patrol officers did not know what to ask, asked these individuals what was the name of the church they attended. And these individuals said they were in a house church. The patrol officer, not understanding Chinese cannot go to churches officially because they’re persecuted, sent these potential refugees back to China.

How we treat refugees at the border doesn’t—says much about who we are as Americans. And I think that we are in a national debate about this, and we will continue to be in a national debate. And I hope it will be resolved in favor of respecting human rights around the world.

My computer resurrected. If you don’t mind, I will talk for a second about the conscious project—prisoner of conscious project, is that OK?

FASKIANOS: Great. That’s great. Thank you.

ARRIAGA: Thank you. Again, each commissioner has adopted a prisoner. We have said that we will talk about these prisoners. I’ll talk about mine first, because I know about them the most. I adopted Fariba and Mahvash. These are both women who are in prisoned in Iran because they are Baha’i. Mahvash Sabet is a poet and a teacher and a psychologist. And she has written a whole volume of poetry. April is national poetry month, so I’m hoping that some of the listeners will look her up. Also, April 27th is Carry a Poem in Your Pocket Day. And it would be very inspiring, I’m sure, for Mahvash Sabet if you printed one—if anyone printed one of her poems from her website, and they were able to put in their pocket and talk to other people about it.

Fariba Kamalabadi is also one of the Baha’i seven. She has also been arrested. And something that I found about both of them that just broke my heart. First of all, they were sentenced to 20 years. They’re relatively young women. They’re in their 50s. They were sentenced in 2008. So unfortunately, they have many years to serve. But regularly, they are furloughed. Can you imagine that? They’re furloughed, they’re sent home for a week, they live with their families for a week, and then they’re sent back to terrible jails in Iran. Currently these two women are being held in a communal prison for political prisoners in Tehran. They’re very courageous. They continue to adhere to their Baha’i religious beliefs.

The Iranian government is so paranoid of their leadership that they published about 1,500 articles a month against the Baha’i faith. So they’re also engaging with people in rural areas, who may not know much about them. Baha’i children are treated—are told in schools that they’re dirty. Other children often don’t associate with them precisely because of the campaigns against them. So, again, Mavash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi.

Tenzin Dorjee, who is our Tibetan Buddhist commissioner—he teaches in California, he has adopted The Panchen Lama. As you know, the Panchen Lama has been detailed by the Chinese government. No one knows where he is. He has been detained for 21 years. And he has since disappeared. Dr. Dorjee has asked the Chinese government, hey, I just want to know where he is. I want to see his face. I want to see that he is fine. But the Chinese government is very threatened by the existence of the Tibetan Buddhists, and as a result has refused to release The Panchen Lama.

Father Tom—Father Tom Reese, who is the chairman of the Commission, he is a Jesuit priest, just like the pope, has adopted Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios. He—the patriarch began religious life when he was very young. He entered the monastery at five and he was ordained at 15. And the Eritrean government, a country that some people rightly refer to as the North Korea of Africa, has been torturing and using forced labor to maintain absolute control, and has imprisoned the patriarch. The patriarch is 89 years old. He has been denied medical care. He has diabetes. And all we’re asking is for his release and for the people of Eritrea to enjoy religious freedom, which is their birthright.

Sandra Jolley from Nevada, one of our fellow commissioners, adopted Gulmira Imin. She’s a Uighur Muslim, like Rabiya Kadeer, whom I mentioned earlier. And again, a young woman who is a leader in her community and has decried the killing of Uyghur Chinese workers.

We also have our fellow Daniel Mark. Dr. Daniel Mark is at Villanova University. He’s an Orthodox Jew. And he is advocating for two religious freedom prisoners in Burma, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt. They are—Burma is undergoing a great crisis as they transition from dictatorship into the current government. And regrettably, they have detained this 28-year-old Muslim man and a 34-year-old Muslim woman who are peace seekers and part of the multiculturalist movement. Again, pacifists who are in prison simply because they’re not walking in lock-step with the government.

Finally, the vice chairman of the Commission, Jim Zogby, is advocating for the rights of Raif Badawi. Raif Badawi was a blogger who was sentenced to lashes in Saudi Arabia. We, commissioners, sent a letter to the Saudi government saying that we would each take 1,000 lashes for him. He’s being sentenced to be flogged 50 times. Raif Badawi received the 2015 Sakharov Price for his human rights work, and we’re hoping that he will be released. His wife is in exile.

And that’s it. Those are the prisoners that each one of the commissioners have adopted. And for more information, again, you can go to And that is U-S-C-I-R-F-dot-gov.

Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t scroll down further—far enough. I skipped a commissioner. So if you don’t tell them, I would appreciate it. Commissioner John Ruskay is advocating for Bagir Kazikhanov, who’s in prison—he’s currently imprisoned in Russia. I mentioned how repressive the laws in Russia have become. He has been—again, fallen under the organization—he’s fallen over the new extremist rules. He is a Muslim. And he, again, simply organized Koran studies in his private home. And he was imprisoned for that.

And finally, Commission Wolcott is working with a Vietnamese pastor, Nguyen Cong Chinh and his wife, Tran Thi Hong. They’re both detained in Vietnam. And again, Vietnam is considering new rules associated with religious freedom. All these two people did is they were Evangelical pastors who lived in Vietnam. And they have long been subject to being observed by the government, harassed by the government. Their house was bulldozed in 2004. The chapel—which, by the way, was a multi-religious chapel; it was also a Mennonite chapel—was torn down. The pastor and his wife were interrogated for more than 50 days. And finally, they were arrested and being charged with sabotaging Vietnamese unity.

And again, people can find out more information about these individual political prisoners—or, religious prisoners at—U-S-C-I-R-F-dot-gov.

FASKIANOS: Great, thank you. Let’s open it up to—we have more questions on the line.

OPERATOR: Next we have a question from Nichole Phillips with Emory University.

PHILLIPS: Hello. Can you hear me?


PHILLIPS: OK, great. Thank you, Kristina, for your presentation. Outside of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, what are the other ways that countries sanctions nations that violate women’s rights? Are there—I mean, are there other types of sanctioning that goes on?

ARRIAGA: Do you mean is USCIRF the only organization that is denouncing the affronts to women’s rights? Is that your question?

PHILLIPS: I’m sorry, say that again?

ARRIAGA: Do you mind repeating your question? I don’t think I got it.

PHILLIPS: My question is: For countries that are watching women’s rights being violated, can they in any way sanction those countries where women’s rights are being violated?

ARRIAGA: Oh, absolutely. Nations around the world, if they have the will, can enforce economic and other sanctions against countries who systematically violate women’s rights, particularly using the name of religion. And we see a really good example of that, right, when the world united to fight apartheidism in Africa—in South Africa. Eventually that system ended. When the world gets together to denounce human rights violations, it is often a very effective—very effective. That’s why a lot of people think this is too big, this is—there is no way that I can fight this, I’m only one person. But on the contrary, I have great faith in people. People can go to their own government and demand sanctions against countries that are violating the rights of women, particularly in the name of religion. That is a particular form of atrocity.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Next we have Beytullah Colak with The Islamic Institute.

COLAK: Hello. Good afternoon.

ARRIAGA: Good afternoon.

COLAK: I am imam for The Islamic Institute, calling from San Antonio, Texas. First of all, I want to say hi, happy Passover for the Jewish community, and happy Easter for the Christian community.

My questions are about massive religious and political persecution in Turkey. Is your organization doing something about this massive persecution in Turkey? It’s not one to hundred, thousands of people right now from the Turkish government—is persecuted from Turkish government. And to the religious affairs of Turkish government, they drew a resolution about essentially Gulen movement. They drew the resolution. These people, they are not Muslim people, or they are deteriorated from Islam.

Maybe the people see, like, political persecution only. Today we can see, like, the religious persecution and the Department of Religious Affairs of Turkey have a resolution with Muslims who they are working, or the peace and dialogue, and especially for the women education, from Nigeria to Madagascar, from Japan to United States, and everywhere in between. The dialogue and doing freedom of religious—doing this dialogue, really I think we are promoting the religious freedom through the interreligious and interfaith dialogue. What is doing or acting in your organization—or, just if you are aware and what’s your opinion.

This persecution is not just in Turkey; in 150 (countries ?). We have this persecution from Thailand to Argentina. I receive a lot of communications from my friends from Thailand, from Madagascar, Mozambique. The Turkish consulates or embassies, they don’t give the service to newborns. And the people asking, are living in Argentina for 10 years? And they asking if they can travel to Argentina to having their baby in Argentina, in Brazil, in Mexico. And then—

FASKIANOS: So let me—we’re at the end of our time. So let’s go to Kristina now.

COLAK: And my question is if you are aware of our situation, if you are—

ARRIAGA: Sure. I will finish—I will finish by repeating the following statement. The antidote to all of these issues is religious pluralism. Turkey did the same thing that they did the French did. They have strict secularism, which requires the absence of religion in the public square and in government. And as a result, they pick and choose which religion will participate in the public square. It is a proven fact that it is good for democracy, it’s good for national security, and it’s good for women’s rights for governments to allow religious pluralism. And Turkey is one of those places where—and you will read in the report which, stay tuned, comes out at the end of this month. You will read in the report more details about the situation in Turkey, and in over 30 other countries.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Kristina, I think we are out of time. So I appreciate your being with us today to share the important work of USCIRF, as well as your views. And I know we were having some technical difficulties with the questions coming through, so my apologies if that was happening to you and my apologies, I know there were a few more questions left on that we couldn’t get to. So I’m sorry that we were unable to address those questions.

So, again, you can follow Kristina Arriaga on Twitter at @ArriagaKristina. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements and upcoming events, as well as information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all again for being with us today, and to Kristina Arriaga.

ARRIAGA: Thank you. Thank you, everyone.


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