Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the podium was joined by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain

U.S. Dept. of State Releases 2023 International Religious Freedom Report

Freedom of religion or belief is both a core American value and a universal human right.  Mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the annual International Religious Freedom Report details the status of religious freedom in 199 foreign countries and territories and describes U.S. actions to advance religious freedom worldwide.  The State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom has become a diplomacy mainstay. By illustrating examples of actions impacting religious freedom, the report aims to illuminate the nature, scope, and severity of these actions.

During a recent interview on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, former IRF Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein described the State Department’s annual IRF report’s influence: “This report has had a powerful impact on countries worldwide. There is an impact on minority communities facing discrimination or harassment, who didn’t think anyone in the world knew or cared about them and they feel encouraged that their story is being told. Second, is the impact on the State Department because every embassy has a political officer or researcher who tracks religious issues that might otherwise be ignored or missed, thus building relations between the embassy and oppressed communities. And third, other countries have used our report as a template for their own diplomacy.”

U.S. embassies in foreign countries prepare the initial draft for their respective country chapter in the report. Embassy personnel rely on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, and the media in the country they are serving.

As part of its collaborative efforts to collect and analyze additional information, the Office of International Religious Freedom, based in Washington, consults with foreign government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, multilateral organizations, journalistic experts, community leaders, and other U.S. government agencies in finalizing the annual report. The report is then submitted to the U.S. Congress and made available to the public.

Today, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken released the 2023 International Religious Freedom Report. The text of Secretary Blinken’s remarks can be found below. The report can be accessed here.

“This [2023 International Religious Freedom] report advances our vision for a future where everyone can choose to practice their beliefs including to choose not to believe or ascribe to a faith. Respecting religious freedom reinforces other rights like the right to speak freely, to assemble peacefully, the ability to participate in politics. Protecting this universal right empowers people to express themselves and to live up to their full potential to contribute fully to their communities. 

Yet today, religious freedom is still not respected by millions of people around the world. Pew Research Center recently found that government restrictions around the world had reached their highest local level since tracking began back in 2007. Today, governments around the world continue to target individuals, shutter places of worship, forcibly displaced communities, and imprison people because of their religious beliefs. Some countries place restrictions on wearing certain types of religious dress, while others enforce it. In some instances, governments are reaching beyond their own borders to target individuals because of their faith and their advocacy for religious freedom.

In every region, people continue to face religious-based violence and religious-based discrimination, both from governments and their fellow citizens. They may be shut out of schools, denied jobs, harassed, beaten, or worse. 

Violent extremist groups also target people based on their faith. As we saw in the attacks on churches and synagogues last weekend in Russia’s Dagestan region, in which police, citizens, and a priest were killed. Since Hamas’ horrific terrorist attack on Israel on October 7th, and the subsequent attack in Gaza, both antisemitism and islamophobia have gone up dramatically.

The [State] Department’s report tracks these threats to religious freedom in almost 200 countries. For example, blasphemy laws in Pakistan help foster a climate of intolerance and hatred that can lead to vigilantes and mob violence. In Hungary, officials continue to use antisemitic tropes and anti-Muslim rhetoric and they penalize members of religious groups who criticize the government. Nine other European nations have laws that effectively ban some forms of religious clothing in public spaces. In India, we see a concerning increase in anti-conversion laws, hate speech, and demolitions of homes and places of worship for members of minority faith communities. 

At the same time, people around the world are also working hard to protect religious freedom. We see that in religious leaders advocating across the globe on behalf of the Baha’is’ who are being suppressed and persecuted in Iran and across the Middle East. And activists like Rushan Abbas who is raising awareness about the genocide and crimes against humanity that China is committing against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Countless civil society groups are also pushing back against hate. Like Tali Nates in South Africa who is sharing the story of her Jewish family members who survived the Holocaust, working with young people to challenge antisemitism, racism, and Xenophobia. Like the survivor whose wife was among the people murdered five years ago in the mosque attacks in Christ Church and has since dedicated himself to understanding between faith communities in New Zealand. These are just two examples, but they are not alone. 

One of the things this report documents is the countries that are taking important steps to defend and promote religious freedom. Last November, Chechnya brought together officials, practitioners, faith and civil society leaders from some 60 countries to share ways to push back on authoritarian governments that are cracking down on religious freedom. Saudi Arabia continues to remove exclusionary and hateful language against religious minorities from its public school textbooks, introducing new editions that promote peace and tolerance. In Germany, authorities are working with survivors to prosecute ISIS fighters who carried out genocide and atrocities against Yazidis, Christians, Shia Muslims and other religious minorities in both Iraq and in Syria. 

The United States will continue to stand with our partners and work to advance religious freedom across the globe. Since 2021, we have dedicated more than 100 million dollars toward this effort. We have supported initiatives to prevent religious based violence. We have provided legal assistance to people who are facing religious persecution. We have trained thousands of human rights defenders who are helping to document abuses. We have also contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to support those fleeing religious repression. Over generations, our nation has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees facing religious persecution. We work relentlessly to secure the release of people who are in prison for exercising their right to religious freedom around the globe. Last year alone, 47 of those prisoners were freed and we will continue advocating for the many who remain unjustly detained. 

We have also recently launched a new initiative to train diplomats and officials from other countries who have been advocating for religious freedom. We will stay focused on protecting religious freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of belief everywhere it needs protection.

Ultimately, this work is about protecting an essential part of what it means to be human. The ability to explore something bigger than ourselves. To decide on our own what we believe or don’t believe without fear of repression. The right to choose what we believe allows us to learn from those who are different from us and celebrate all that we have in common.”

The report can be accessed here.