Persecution of Religious Minorities

The Persecution of Religious Minorities

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Thomas J. Reese, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, discusses the persecution of religious minorities around the world, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


Thomas J. Reese

Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Senior Analyst, National Catholic Reporter


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 Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We are pleased to have CFR members and participants in our Religion and Foreign Policy initiative on the call today. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,

We are delighted to have Father Thomas Reese to talk about international religious freedom and the persecution of religious minorities around the world. Elizabeth Cassidy, the co-director of policy and research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, will be joining us as a discussant during the question-and-answer portion of the conversation.

Father Reese is a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, and recently became the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Previously he was editor-in-chief of America magazine, and a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. He is also the author of a trilogy on the organization and politics of the Catholic Church. And you can follow him on Twitter at @ThomasReese (sic; @ThomasReeseSJ).

Welcome, Father Tom. Thank you very much for being with us today, as well as Elizabeth. It would be terrific if you could begin by giving us an overview of the persecution of religious minority groups around the world. There is a lot of it in the news. And talk about the trends that you have seen over the years that are—and factors that are contributing to this form of discrimination.

REESE: Well, thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion and for the great work that CFR is doing. As you mentioned, I’m the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is a nine-member, bipartisan U.S. commission that advises the president, the State Department, and the Congress on issues of international religious freedom. We’re a nine-member commission, with three people appointed by the president, of which I’m one; and three by the leaders in the House of Representatives; and three by the leadership of the Senate. So we’re kind of an unusual commission.

In my time today I will summarize the plight of religious minorities of various nations based on the analysis and findings of USCIRF’s 2016 Annual Report. We issue—as part of our mandate, we issue a report on religious freedom every year. And that’s available at our website. Then I’m going to discuss why everyone should be really concerned about the persecution—firstly, because such persecution violates universal right to religious freedom, and also because I think it serves as a warning sign of real human calamity.

In this year’s Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department continue to designate 10 nations as CPCs, or countries of particular concern, making them among the world’s worst religious freedom abusers. We also recommend CPC designation for seven other nations that the State Department does not designation. In addition, we list 10 countries as Tier 2 nations, marking them as religious freedom violators that are in danger of becoming CPC nations, unless they reverse their course.

When looking at all these countries, one thing is really clear: In none of these countries are members of religious minorities safe and secure in the practice of their faith. Just two caveats, though, before I begin. First, time is not going to permit me to go through all, or even most, of our CPC or Tier 2 countries. The report is available at our website, Secondly, religious freedom is not only for religious minorities. It is the right of every individual, including members of majority faith, who also suffer religious freedom violations. Nevertheless, it’s clear, religious minorities often are particularly targeted and are especially vulnerable.

So let’s begin by looking at the conditions in some CPC-designated countries. Burma is undergoing a welcome transition from military dictatorship to a political democracy. Nevertheless, both Christians and Rohingya Muslims still suffer at the hands of the government, most recently, in the case of the Rohingya, given the enactment of four discriminatory race and religion laws. There’s also unchecked violence from non-state actors, from extremist elements among the country’s Buddhist majority. The plight of the Rohingya is especially dire as hundreds of thousands are stateless, homeless, and easy targets for violence.

Iran is another country in which religious minorities—especially the Baha’is, Christian coverts, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims are targeted. Iran’s government considers its own interpretation of Shia Islam above all others. Despite promises of reform, President Rouhani has presided over an increase in imprisonment of members of these minorities. In Saudi Arabia, the government enforces on everyone its interpretation of the majority Sunni Islam faith. In the kingdom, not a single non-Muslim house of worship is allowed.

Among nations that the State Department has yet to designate as CPCs, the Central African Republic has recently descended into near anarchy following a 2013 military coup by the leader of a Muslim militia. While both Muslim and Christian militias since then have committed multiple atrocities, Christians far outnumber Muslims across the country and Muslims were disproportionately victimized. Most mosques were destroyed and almost all Muslim population—all of the Muslim population has been driven from the country.

In Egypt, while President al-Sisi continues to make public statements encouraging religious tolerance and moderation, non-state actors continue to attack non-Muslim religious minorities, including Coptic Christians. And past attacks by these non-state actors have not been prosecuted. In addition, Egypt’s long-time discriminatory and repressive laws and policies remain, and Egyptian courts are prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning citizens, especially members of minority faiths and atheists, for blasphemy and related charges at a faster rate than previously.

In both Iraq and Syria, governments and non-state actors alike have badly treated religious minorities. In Iraq, the government has marginalized the Sunni minority; and failed to protect Christians and Yazidis, as well as defending Shia and Sunnis, from ISIL’s terrible atrocities and other extremist assaults. In Syria, while President Assad for years offered special protection to members of groups he deemed loyal to him, no Syrian has equal rights under the law, including the right to religious freedom, apart from his arbitrary will and dictates. And so in 2011, when Syrians peacefully demonstrated for their rights, Assad’s soldiers fired on them, while his regime pitted one group against another. The resulting civil war now leaves Christians and other minorities between a rock and a hard place—Assad’s brutal government and extremist groups like ISIL.

In Pakistan, non-Sunni Muslim minorities, from Christians and Hindus, to Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims are squeezed between the government’s enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws, on the one hand, and violence by terrorist groups and other radical non-state actors on the other, who often act with impunity. The relationship between the two is tragically clear—enforcing blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws emboldens non-state actors to assault and kill perceived transgressors.

Among USCIRF’s Tier 2 nations, members of minority communities in India—especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs—experience harassment, intimidation, and violence largely at the hands of members of Hindu nationalist groups. Members of the ruling BJP party tacitly support these non-state actors and use religiously divisive language to get their base out to vote. And this kind of language inflames these groups against minority religious groups. National and state governments also implement laws that restrict religious conversion from Hinduism and cow slaughter, that impact minorities.

And finally, in Russia, groups which are not part of the majority Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly Muslims and Jehovah(’s) Witnesses, suffer persecution of various kinds—both Russia’s—both under Russia’s complex religion law, and a so-called extremism law that criminalizes the mere assertion of the superiority of one religion over another. A recent purported anti-terrorism law—which bans preaching, praying, proselytizing, and disseminating religious material outside of officially designated sites is already harming Russia’s protestant minority. In addition, in the North Caucasus, Kremlin-backed authorities continue to commit atrocities and engage in broad-based repression against Muslim populations.

Clearly, religious minorities are facing tremendous pressures across much of the world, from both governments and non-state actors. Why should we care? Well, we should care because the universal human right of religious freedom is being violated here—the right of all human beings to think as they please, believe or not believe in accordance with their conscience, and live out those beliefs in a nonviolent way, without fear or intimidation.

But we should also, I think, care for another reason. As we have seen dramatically in recent years, unchecked persecution of religious minorities has been associated with two of the worst humanitarian calamities of our time—an unprecedented refugee crisis, and genocide. A total of 65 million people worldwide are now internally displaced or have been forced out of their home countries—the largest number since World War II. This 65 million includes many who have been displaced because of their religious faith.

In Burma, approximately 120,000 Rohingya Muslims and at least 100,000 Christians are internally displaced. In Central Africa, 850,000 people driven from their homes, including most of the Muslim minority. In Iraq and Syria, a total of 18 million people displaced. As we all know, more than a million of these refugees are now in Europe, triggering a rise in xenophobia, especially against Muslim refugees.

And then there’s genocide. In March of this year, the State Department rightly proclaimed ISIL a perpetrator of genocide for its attempts to wipe out Christians, Yazidis, Shia, and other religious minorities. USCIRF both called for and commended this action by the State Department, and urged our government to work to ensure that ISIL and Syria’s Assad regime are referred to the International Criminal Court to investigate their atrocities.

The world cannot afford to ignore the plight of religious minorities across the globe. To be sure, each country has its own unique dynamics regarding religion in general, and religious minorities in particular. Nevertheless, every religious minority individual anywhere in the world has a right to practice his or her religion in peace, the same right that every human person has. And we, at USCIRF, remain committed to making religious freedom a high priority in our nation’s foreign policy, so that nations may be held accountable for their violations of this fundamental freedom.

So now I think we can have questions, or responses and comments. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much, Father Tom. Let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Paul de Vries from New York Divinity School.

DE VRIES: Thank you so much. Thank you, Father Reese, too for your overview, and the clarity of why this all matters.

I’m wondering about a related subject of the effect of some of his persecution sometimes awakens people to a deeper focus on their religion. I saw some articles recently on the growth of the church in the midst of persecution in Iran, I think it was. Do you have some thoughts on that, or some data on that?

REESE: I really don’t have any data on that. That’s not something that our Commission—would be within the mandate of our Commission. As an individual, of course, as a Christian and Catholic, we’ve always—and I speak now as—in my personal view, not necessarily representing the views of the Commission, I always have to say that—you know, we’ve always had in the Christian tradition the idea that the blood of martyrs is the seeds of Christianity. So I think persecution does focus the mind, does remind us of the importance of our religion. And I think that’s true of all religious traditions, that this kind of persecution can sometimes strengthen the faith.

But it also makes it—you know, and this is the concern of our Commission—it also clearly makes it impossible for some people to practice their religion, and forces people into other religions that they do not want to be in, but simply out of fear are forced to do. And this is clearly a violation of human rights.

CASSIDY: Could I chime in? This is—

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

CASSIDY: This is Elizabeth. Can I chime in for a second?

FASKIANOS: Oh, sure. Go ahead, Elizabeth.

CASSIDY: Just in response to Paul’s question. As Father Tom said, we don’t have—we don’t have statistics on the—necessarily the growth of Christianity in Iran or other countries, but we do talk in our Annual Report—as Father Tom mentioned in his remarks—about Iran is one country where we’ve founding increasing imprisonment of minorities in recent years. And so—and that did include Christians. On those numbers, what we had—as of February 2016, we knew about—we knew that there were about 90 Christians either imprisoned, detained, or awaiting trial, which was twice the number from the previous year. So we do track those sort of numbers, and they’re not necessarily the number of the communities overall.

REESE: And of course we know also that the number of Christians in China has been increasing more and more over the years. And of course, religion is—has been highly regulated and often persecuted in China. So that’s a place where there’s a problem. In fact, today there are more Catholics in China than there are in Ireland, so. But thank you for that question.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jack Khan from UCLA School of Law.

KHAN: Hello. Yeah, this is actually—it’s Amjad Khan. And thank you, Father Reese and Elizabeth Cassidy, for your leadership. I’ve followed your work for years and the Commission is very lucky to have both of you.

I’ve been privileged to advocate in the religious freedom space for over a decade, and representing in a pro-bono capacity many religious minorities, particularly the Ahmadi community that’s persecuted in Pakistan. My question actually stems from improving our advocacy and perhaps looking at the issue of religious freedom not purely from a rights perspective. What I mean is that oftentimes religious freedom is relegated to a footnote item when it comes to matters of policy.

In the State Department, there is the office of International Religious Freedom, which is separate and distinct from other policy arms of the state. And as we advocate, we tend to advocate in the Earth space. And that’s fine and well, but when it comes to elevating or demarching issues, it becomes very difficult to do so because of the myriad of considerations that go into bilateral relations. Take, for example, Pakistan. The issue of national security is often front and center, and the issue of religious freedom isn’t perhaps front and center.

So my question is, can religious freedom, or might religious freedom be reimagined and reconsidered as a national security imperative? That is to say, can we—can USCIRF work and brief the National Security Council and other security arms of the government to reformulate the issue as one that concerns our own national security? I think there’s considerable new research on this subject as well. And I would be interested to see—to hear your thoughts on that.

REESE: Well, I think you described the problem very well. You know, under all administrations we have noticed that the question of religious freedom is—often falls to the bottom of the agenda when it comes to diplomatic negotiations with other countries. National security is always up there at the top of the list and, let’s face it, economic issues are up there at the top of the list. Sometimes we hope that things would improve in different countries if we opened up relations and took care of these other issues.

I mean, the classic case, of course, is China. We felt that if we got involved in trade with them and encouraged capitalism in China that this would somehow magically bring about religious freedom in China also. It hasn’t happened. On the other hand, in Vietnam, things have been improving. They’re still not good, but certainly the situation in Vietnam is much better today than it was immediately after the revolution. And there is the hope that things will continue to progress and improve there.

But you’re absolutely right. Under almost—well, under every administration the question of religious freedom has not been the highest priority in the White House or in the State Department. The priorities have been national security and economics, trade. Now, our job is to—(laughs)—keep hitting them over the head, and reminding them that religious freedom is important. And I think you have made some good points. It’s important for national security because we know that countries that respect religious freedom tend to be countries that have a more peaceful situation.

You know, when religious minorities are respected and given some freedom, they are less likely to turn to violence to protect and fight for their rights. You know, sometimes—well, often—you know, suppressing religious minorities can turn them to violence and to extremism. And so respecting religious freedom, I think you’re absolutely right, should be part of our national security strategy. Encouraging interreligious dialogue is extremely important so that different religious groups get a better understanding of one another, build relationships, and can help bring about a more peaceful environment in the world and in their nations.

I think also, frankly, religious freedom’s good for the economy also, because if you have violence in a country, if you have disruption, if you have conflict between religious groups in a country, well, businesses—it’s not good for business, to put it crassly. And it’s certainly not an environment that would attract—that would attract investors. So I think you are correct in pointing to—that there are other reasons for supporting religious freedom than simply saying it’s a human right. I think we can also argue that it’s good for national security and, on the other hand, it’s also good for—good for business.

Now, I’m a strong supporter of religious freedom because it’s a human right. It’s a part of human dignity. But I’m willing to persuade anybody anyway I can to support—to support religious freedom. There is one hesitancy that I do have in putting too much stress, and maybe sometime we can talk about this, you know, off the phone—too much stress on national security as a reason for supporting religious freedom. I think that may be a good argument in the White House. It may also be a good argument in the State Department and in Congress and in the United States.

But I would be a little worried if, you know, the—if other countries saw—if other countries heard us saying that we are here to support religious freedom in your country because it’s good for our national security. That might be a little counterproductive. So I’d be a little bit careful about that, and also a little bit careful about who I had pushing religious freedom. It could be very—you know, if suddenly the CIA is out there working for religious freedom, I think that might be problematic in some countries.

So I am sympathetic to the point you’ve made, but I’m also—you know, want to make sure that it isn’t misunderstood in foreign countries where we might try and make that case.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next—

FASKIANOS: Elizabeth, do you want to add anything, or should we go to the next question?

CASSIDY: No, that’s OK. You should go onto the next question, thanks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next one, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Virginia Farris from U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

FARRIS: Father Tom, thank you for your explanation. I wanted to raise the issue of blasphemy laws and defamation of religion. I know USCIRF has been doing work in this area, but in the Muslim world, where religion and state are more closely intertwined, I do see continued efforts to promote certainly defamation of religion concerns. And I guess I also have seen that in some Western countries, this whole idea of defamation of religion is still active. So from your perspective, what can be done to address these concerns about people who feel that any insult of their religion should somehow be prosecuted?

REESE: Thank you, Virginia, for that question. That is something that we at the Commission have been very concerned about. In fact, last month I testified before Congress on blasphemy—these blasphemy laws. I think they are very bad. They are very problematic. I mean, first of all, it places governments in the role of deciding theology, deciding what’s blasphemy and who can be punished for what. It also—you know, it’s not only a violation of religion, it’s also a violation of free speech and that sort of thing. So, I mean, this is—this is an extremely serious issue in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, and many other countries. And some of the punishments for this are long prison terms, or execution. I mean, the punishments are totally out of—out of sight.

There is an additional problem here also, and that is that these laws encourage kind of vigilante justice, where it’s not only the state—where you might have some control and some process—but you have what we refer to as non-state actors, I mean, mobs who will—you know, there’s a rumor someone has blasphemed, someone has disrespected the prophet. And the person is simply attacked without any kind of due process of law, and beaten up and sometimes killed. This is—and this is—this kind of activity is encouraged by the fact that there are these blasphemy laws.

And then finally, the other issue here is there are serious problems with false accusations. Sometimes it’s, you know, I owe you some money and I don’t have the money to pay you back, so, well, I’ll just accuse you of blasphemy and everybody will come and burn down your shop and chase you out of town. Now I don’t have to pay my debt. And there is no punishment, often, for people who make these false accusations. And sometimes it’s just, you know, neighbors who are mad at each other, business competitors, or I—you know, I want the land that you own, or—you know, and you’re a member of a minority religion, so you’re suspect to begin with.

It is just very, very problematic. Now, our Commission actually is going to be coming out with a report—a very extensive report on blasphemy laws around the world. And Elizabeth will correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we’ve found something like 94 countries where blasphemy—there are, actually, blasphemy laws on the books, including some Western countries. Like, I believe, Canada is one of them. So one of the things we need to do is get all these Western countries to remove these blasphemy laws—these laws that are no longer enforced and are quite archaic—to remove them, because it’s hard to, you know, tell other countries, you know, get rid of these blasphemy laws and they say, well, you’ve got them. Why aren’t you getting rid of yours? So I think that’s something that needs to be done.

But the second—you know, with countries where we just can’t get them to change their laws to get rid of blasphemy laws—which, of course, is what we want them to do—we want to encourage them to do two things. One is to reduce the penalties on these violations. But secondly, and most importantly, to criminalize false accusations. This is very important to stop people from making these false accusations which are so divisive in communities, and are particularly aimed at the members of religious minorities who are treated with suspicion in their communities to begin with.

So thank you for that question, because it’s something that our Commission is taking very seriously. And I think in a month or so we are going to be issuing a really important and breaking report on this question. Elizabeth, you were involved in the report. Do you want to jump in here too?

CASSIDY: Sure. Thanks, Tom. And hi, Ginny.

Yeah, as Father Tom mentioned, we’ve been working with the clinic at Cardozo Law School and a human rights consultant on a big study of blasphemy laws that will be coming out in the next few months, looking at the language of the laws and how they relate to—relate or don’t relate to international human rights principles. And research has been going on for a couple years, but we found 71 countries with blasphemy laws still on the books. And those are all over—all over the world, including in, as Tom mentioned, Canada, some European countries, Caribbean countries. Some where the laws aren’t commonly enforced, but we think it’s a really good—it’s a really good baseline. And then to use this to call for repeal, especially in these laws—these countries in Europe, Canada, places like that. So we’re really looking forward to that.

REESE: And let me just add one other footnote here. We’re not in favor of blasphemy. You know, and I think it’s important that religious leaders of all persuasions stand up and condemn blasphemy and attacks on other religions. For example, in the Muslim community, there—you know, it is totally abhorrent to them to have pictures of the prophet. Well, I think Christians and Jews should stand up and say: This is simply unacceptable, these cartoons and things that revile Muslims or any other—any religious. We should stand up and say this is wrong, this shouldn’t be done.

Now, we don’t want to criminalize. We don’t think it should be criminalized. But I think—you know, if the Christian faith is attacked, I think it—you know, we appreciate it if other religious groups stand up and say: This is wrong. And I think that kind of activity on the part of different religious groups, I think, you know, decreases the perceived need for these blasphemy laws also. If people are getting up and defending you when these kinds of things happen to your religion then you say, OK then, you know, I—you know, I can kind of relax or back off a bit on support for these blasphemy laws, as least.

So I think—I think it’s the responsibility of every religion to come to the defense and say that—of other religions. And to clearly say that blasphemy and derogatory remarks about another religion are simply not acceptable forms of debate or public conversation.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jay Kansara from Hindu American Foundation.

KANSARA: Hello. Father Reese, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. We actually meet right before the hearing that you testified at. So it was a pleasure to meet you then.

REESE: Oh, thank you.

KANSARA: My question is, for the past few years we’ve noticed that Bangladesh either has not been in the report or is the lowest tier of concern for USCIRF. And we’re curious as to know why that is, considering religious minorities of Bangladesh even have decreased in population over the course of several decades, and continue to do so. And the current government has even condemned the right of secularists to even blog, which is an affront to their freedom of expression, as well as Hindus and other minorities who have been targeted for killings directly. So can you explain the rationale of USCIRF and whether you foresee that to change in the next year?

REESE: Yeah. Thank you for that question. We have been very concerned about what’s happening in Bangladesh, and frankly also Pakistan, where it can be even worse, in terms of the treatment of Hindus and Christians and others in these—in these circumstances. You know, it’s a judgement call in terms of which groups reach the level of being a CPC country, a country of particular concern. But clearly Bangladesh is one that we have been keeping our eyes on that needs to be monitored. You know, I mean—you know, the extremists there have been threatening, assaulting, harassing, intimidating religious minorities. You know, and as you say, also atheists and secularists.

And this—you know, the government needs to, you know, deal with these things, go, you know, investigate, arrest, prosecute people. This is one of the things that we are concerned about. Now, they have been doing that to some extent, but they really need to have better protection for minorities in these countries. And—you know, and it’s not just persecution in that sense, of physical violence, but it’s also, you know, confiscating land and, you know, disputes about ownership and those kinds of things that have been especially targeted on Hindus and Christians.

So this is something that we have been concerned about, we’re keeping an eye on, and trying to—trying to track. And we have, you know, made recommendations to the U.S. government on—to deal with this, to give assistant to the Bangladesh government to, you know, work in terms of counterterrorism, and given the kind of technical assistance they need, and to urge, you know, the prime minister and the other government officials to, you know, really publicly—publicly—denounce this kind of activity, and the kind of religiously divisive language that’s often used to motivate this violence and harassment. That’s very important, to have them publicly speaking on this.

So these kinds of things I think really need to be happening. I don’t know, Elizabeth, do you want to jump in here also and add something?

CASSIDY: Sure. Hi, Jay. How are you?

Bangladesh is a country that we’ve been following really closely lately, including in the period leading up to our 2016 Annual Report. As you may know, Sahar went there in March—which was just after our reporting period for that report, which ended on February 29th, closed—to take a look at the situation. You know, for—under IRFA, a lot of the—oh, a lot of the question when it’s—when the violations are being perpetrated by non-state actors, a lot of the question is the level of the government’s toleration. What is the government doing or not doing about it, so looking at—looking at those sort of issues.

And then we’ve been following it really closely ever since—even after our Annual Report. As you know better than most people, the situation has really gone downhill in the months after—in the months after our reporting period ended. So, you know, we’ll be taking another look at it over this year, and then into our—into our Annual Report period. Of course, with these questions of toleration, you start getting into questions of what is or is not the government doing, and the government’s capacity to respond to these questions. So these countries where the violations are perpetrated by non-state actors are some of the ones that we have to really, you know, delve into carefully in considering what tier they go on.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can, but I don’t think we’re going to make it. So let’s continue to move on.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Azza Karam from United Nations Population Fund.

KARAM: Thank you very much indeed, Father Reese and Elizabeth, and all the colleagues who have been on the call so far.

I just have a question for Father Reese and Elizabeth. Given the concerns that you mentioned and the incidences of non-state actors often playing a very critical role in inflicting the harm against religious minorities, even at times, according to you—sometimes influenced by or encouraged by the presence of certain laws. But given that we are confronting a situation where in many instances—precisely where there is persecution of religious minorities, governments are not necessarily best capable or able to influence and/or to put a stop, to take control, for a variety of reasons, because governments are generally getting weaker in many of these countries, also for a variety of reasons.

But given that we have a reality check, which is that non-state actors are playing these roles, increasingly, where does USCIRF or where does your work see this kind of approach—is there an approach to deal with this particular reality? Is there any wisdom gleaned about how to deal with non-state actors, perpetuators of those kinds of atrocities? Thank you.

REESE: Thank you. I mean, you really—you really expressed the problem very well, the question of non-state actors. You know, our concept of religious freedom was simpler in the past. You would have the atheistic, totalitarian governments that were simply suppressing all religion, or you had a government that had a state religion that was imposing that religion on everybody else. And so the focus was on the state, the government doing that. The situation is much more complex today because of the role of non-state actors that are causing some of the—a lot of the persecution, a lot of the violence against religious minorities.

And how do you deal with that? You know, if you have a strong state and that state is not doing anything to protect religious minorities, well, then you’ve got a clear issue with the state and you can condemn the state and say, you know: Fix it. Why aren’t you dealing with this? Why aren’t you protecting these people? This is outrageous. But that’s a situation where you have a strong state with a criminal justice system, police that can—you know, should be getting in there and protecting minorities, instead of just standing by and watching what happens, which is the case in Pakistan and some other countries, where this kind of violence takes place and the police just stand by and watch or, you know, might even help. But it’s non-state actors.

Now, you’re quite correct also, you have—we have situations where we basically have failed states. Are they capable of protecting their people? Maybe they would like to, or they try to. But they’re—you know, we basically have failed states that are incapable of governing and protecting their minority groups or other groups. So that’s a kind of a—that’s kind of a new situation. And it—you know, how do we deal with that? I mean, to a certain extent it requires beefing up the state so that it can have police to protect minority groups, and train them to do this.

So one of the things that we have recommended is that the State Department and other agencies in the U.S. government as part of their programs, for example, train—you know, if they have a program to train police or to train the military, part of that training needs to be about religious freedom issues, and the responsibilities of police to protect minority groups and religious groups from this kind of persecution and this kind of violence. I think that’s extremely important.

I think also, though, we have to look beyond the state. We have to look at NGOs, we have to look at the religious groups themselves to see who can encourage interreligious dialogue, conversation. And these—you know, these have to happen before a crisis occurs. If you wait till the crisis occurs, it’s too late. You really need—and it can’t be simply a leap at the national level. You know, the local imam and the local Christian pastor have to sit down, talk to each other, have dinner, visit each other, you know, so that when something goes wrong they can communicate without suspicion with each other, because they’ve already established relationships. This is—this is also extremely important.

So you know, thank you very much for that question, because I think you’re pointing to how complex this problem of religious freedom is today, because of failed states, because of the role of non-state actors. You know, when we—when we list a country as a CPCs, sometimes it’s not—I mean, it’s not that we’re blaming the government officials, that they aren’t trying or don’t want to, it’s just that the country is such a failed state that they’re incapable of protecting their religious minorities. So I think you’ve put your finger on an extremely important issue.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Will McGarvey from Interfaith—I’m sorry—Interfaith Council of Costa County.

McGarvey: Interfaith Council of Contra—(audio break)—in the Bay Area. Thank you, Father Tom. Our Council has made statements on behalf of Rohingya Muslims, Baha’is and their lack of access to higher education. We’ve also spearheaded some of the work that led to the declaration of the genocide against the Yazidis over the last couple years.

I have a question that’s more of a local question, though, because some of our Native Americans have experienced their sacred sites being—having less access to their ancestral sacred sites. And some of it’s due to commercial development, of course. But some of it’s due even to state parks and national parks and local municipalities that have taken away the natural state of their ancient sacred sites. And for folks who have a nature-based spirituality, does your report have anything to do with domestic restrictions on religious freedom—such as Native American sacred sites.

REESE: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for that question. And thank you for the work that you and your organization are doing on religious freedom.

Our mandate is strictly limited to international religious freedom issues—in other words, religious freedom outside of the United States. We have nothing to say and cannot comment on religious freedom issues in the United States. That’s simply outside of our mandate, even though it—you know, it’s an important issue.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from Omer Salem from Foundation of Religious Diplomacy.

SALEM: Yes. Hello. Thank you, Father Thomas Reese, and also thanks to Elizabeth Cassidy for the excellent presentation here. And I have a statement and a question. My statement is that the way religion is taught in many parts of the world today promotes persecution. For example, when religious leaders teach that their followers are the only one faith and everyone else is condemned to damnation or to Hell, it tends to be a basis or a cause for other religious groups to try to persecute them. In any case, my question is, do you think that religious leaders have a role in fomenting or igniting those types of persecutions? And could religious leaders change their tone or attitude or the way they teach religion in a way to lessen or possibly eliminate religious persecution? Thank you.

REESE: Very good question. I think every religion believes that it is the best religion. Otherwise, these people wouldn’t be in that religion. So I think—I think we have to just take that for granted. But that doesn’t mean that you have to hate the other person who is not in your religion. But I think that’s part of reality is we all believe that our religion, our faith, is the best one, otherwise we’d join somebody else.

I think the second issue, though, is what your attitude as a religion is to people of other faiths. I mean, we Catholics, you know, pretty much thought everybody else was going to go to Hell unless you were a Catholic. Now, we don’t hold that anymore. Now some religious groups do still hold that position. And, you know, part of freedom of religion is the right to hold that position. As long as you don’t beat up or treat badly the other person, you know, you can hold that. I don’t think we can say they cannot hold that position. I think it’s problematic for good relations between religious groups. Catholics now recognize that, you know, it’s God’s mercy and salvation and mystery, but certainly all people can—are open to the spirit and can go to Heaven. But other Christian faiths simply don’t hold that. Others are more flexible.

But I—you know, I don’t think it’s our role to tell people to change their theologies. You know, but I think you do—you do point to the fact that, frankly, it is lots of religious leaders who are leading these persecutions, who are causing these problems, who are—you know, are actually leading the violence against minority religions. And this is scandalous and this is very, very problematic. It’s one thing to have a teaching that your religion in the best and only religion, but it’s another thing to start acting violently against other groups.

I guess the last thing I would say is I think—I think every religious group needs to be sensitive to how their theology is heard, how their message is heard by other people. I mean, frankly—and I can say this because I’m a Christian. So, you know, if a Christian goes into a Hindu village or into a Muslim village and says to the people: Unless you accept Jesus as your lord and savior you’re all going to burn in Hell, well, I don’t think they should be surprised that that will upset the Hindus and the Muslims in that village. Now, they might just laugh it off and tell him to leave town, but, you know, they might, you know, get beat up and thrown out of town, just as Saint Paul was, frequently.

So I think we—you know, in the way that we—each religious group evangelizes, I think we have to be sensitive the views and feelings of other groups, no matter what our theology is. But I think most especially we have to be very clear that our religion is against violence and, frankly, all—as far as I can see, all religions are against violence. And that is a really violation. I was so pleased, for example, to see in France when that Catholic priest was assassinated in his church by a ISIL supporter, the following Sunday scores of Muslims came to Catholic churches to express their solidarity and their respect for Christians, to show that they are against this kind of violence. I think that’s the kind of thing that religious leaders need to do to counter this kind of extremism that can show up in any faith.

FASKIANOS: Well, with that, I am sorry to say we are out of time. And I apologize to—I know that there are many more questions on the line. I apologize for not getting to them. But we try to end on time.

REESE: And I apologize—and I apologize for making my answers too long, so we couldn’t get enough questions in. (Laughter.)

FASKIANOS: Well, we will—we will have to continue the conversation again. So thank you, Father Tom and Elizabeth Cassidy, for being with us today, for sharing the findings of USCIRF’s report, and for everybody’s comments and questions. Again, just to say that you can follow USCIRF’s work at, as well as Father Reese on Twitter at @ThomasReeseSJ—I left off the SJ at the beginning, so let me just make sure I correct it, so you can follow his insightful tweets. So thank you both for—yes, that’s correct right?

REESE: Thank you so much. Yes, yes, that’s correct. There’s a lot of Thomas Reeses. There’s only Thomas Reese SJ.

FASKIANOS: Good. (Laughs.) And we want to follow you, for sure. So I hope that you also follow us at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. And for CFR members, you can find out more about the religion initiative here at CFR. So thank you all again. I hope that you enjoy what remains of the summer. And we will be recommencing after Labor Day with a very active and full program here. So thank you, again. Thank you, Father Tom and Elizabeth Cassidy.

CASSIDY: Thank you.

REESE: Thank you.


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