Religious freedom is in short supply in the Middle East, according to the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has issued a report finding Iran chief among the nations where spiritual beliefs can bring prison sentences or worse.
The commission, which reports to President Obama, named several nations including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, North Korea and China. But it singled out Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the theocratic state’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for their harsh crackdown on non-Islamic religions.
“Since becoming president, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for an end to the development of Christianity in Iran,” noted the report in its section on the Iranian regime’s gutting of Christian freedoms.
The report took 15 countries to task over their “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom, which the commission defined as “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” acts of torture, prolonged detention without charges, disappearances, or “other flagrant denial[s] of the right to life, liberty or the security of persons.” The exhaustive, 364-page report covered the period January 31, 2012 – January 31, 2013.
"The government of Iran's increased persecution of religious minorities should raise alarm around the world,” Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told FoxNews.com. "I urge the administration to designate key Iranian officials as human right abusers -- starting with the judge who put American citizen and Pastor Saeed Abedini in prison for practicing his faith."
The commission’s report cited the shocking case of U.S-Iranian pastor Abedini, who was sentenced in a January trial “without due process to eight years in prison for ’threatening the national security of Iran’ for his activity in the Christian house church movement.”
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, hailed the commission’s decision to highlight the plight of Abedini in its report.
“As the 2013 Iranian presidential election quickly approaches, many in the religious minority communities brace themselves for the worst,” said Sekulow, whose organization represents Abedini’s Idaho-based family. “Meanwhile, Pastor Saeed currently suffers in solitary confinement in Evin prison -- a place in which he said a single day passes like a 100 days. While we are grateful for the Commission's report and mention of Pastor Saeed, to see real change in Iran, countries around the global music raise a chorus of voices against these abuses."
It’s not just Christians who come under fire for their beliefs in Iran. Intensified state-sponsored anti-Semitism triggered sharp criticism in the report.
“Heightened anti-Semitism and repeated Holocaust denials by senior government officials and clerics continue to foster a climate of fear among Iran’s Jewish community,” the report stated. “Since the 1979 revolution, members of minority religious communities have fled Iran in significant numbers for fear of persecution.”
Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, a European expert on Iran who has written extensively on the persecution of Christians, Baha’is and Jews in the Islamic Republic, told FoxNews.com that USCIRF report is “especially important” because the document recommends that Voice of America and Radio Farda be expanded to “open Iran’s closed society.”
The German-Iranian scholar Wahdat-Hagh praised the report’s recommendation to use Internet freedom to counter religious persecution in Iran. The report recommends helping to develop free, secure email access for use in Iran, possibly through satellite, and to distribute counter-censorship programs to help citizens communicate without being spied on.
In addition to Iran, the USCIRF report urged Secretary of State John Kerry to designate Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) for their ongoing crackdowns on religious freedom. The USCIRF deemed seven other nations as meeting the criteria of CPC: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
"Of the top five U.S. foreign aid recipients, three -- Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan -- are countries USCIRF recommends for CPC status due to systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” said Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Yet the State Department has not named any of the three countries, in part, because of competing strategic interests."
Benjamin Weinthal is a journalist who reports on religious freedom in the Middle East and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter: @BenWeinthal