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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

State Department Criticizes Religious Persecution: But Will It Act?

On Wednesday, the State Department released its report on international religious freedom, inviting advocates from across the religious spectrum to attend. I was fortunate to be included. Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally released the report from the ornate treaty room on Mahogany Row, sending a strong message of solidarity to the group in attendance. Such gestures are positive. However, deeds will make these words truly matter to the activists who attended and the besieged communities they represent.

Every year, the State Department writes the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, tracking religious persecution in almost 200 countries. Congress mandated the report in 1998 when it passed the International Religious Freedom Act, which President Bill Clinton signed into law. The report, an incredible endeavor made possible by the hard work of American diplomats and civil servants around the world, has become the authoritative review of religious freedom globally. By speaking for the United States, the report encourages the oppressed and lets oppressors know their dark deeds have not gone unnoticed. Importantly, the data within becomes the baseline for subsequent U.S. foreign policy decisions relating to this fundamental human right.

As the religious freedom act declared over 25 years ago, the United States shall protect and promote religious freedom abroad. This mandate ensures that every administration, Republican and Democratic, includes considerations about religious freedom in foreign affairs. It is an exceptional part of American diplomacy and an excellent reflection on our nation.

In his speech, Secretary Blinken recommitted the United States to protecting and promoting religious freedom abroad. He made a point to single out concerns in Pakistan, Hungary, and India, as well as repression in Iran and China. He decried rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred. Blinken praised Chechia (formerly the Czech Republic) for convening an international meeting last November to combat religious persecution, Germany for prosecuting ISIS fighters for crimes against Yazidis, Christians, and others, and Saudi Arabia for its ongoing reforms to expunge hateful themes from its school textbooks. He also highlighted the release of 47 religious prisoners of conscience.

He closed his speech, saying, “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.” Afterward, I spoke briefly with Secretary Blinken, thanking him for raising specific countries. In response, he said specifics matter because international religious freedom matters to the United States. But also because human rights matter to him personally.

Secretary Blinken has spoken publicly about how his stepfather survived the Holocaust. And from my time at the State Department during the Obama administration, he was known as a sympathetic ally in a building often hostile to values-based diplomacy. A concrete example is how he has used his time since becoming Secretary of State. Blinken has overseen the release of more religious freedom reports than anyone else in his position. He has presented the report every year during his tenure as Secretary (2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024), and also during the Obama administration as Deputy Secretary when John Kerry wasn’t available (2016). He has been similarly committed to rolling out the human rights report and the trafficking in persons report, among others. 

The Secretary of State is a busy person. Someone in his position would not consistently make time if it didn’t matter personally. While the administration has been criticized for its policies regarding Gaza and elsewhere, the corps of diplomats Blinken leads know human rights matter to their boss.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain, spoke after the Secretary and also named names. Hussain highlighted Burmese attacks on Rohingya Muslims and the jailing of Baptist Pastor Hkalam Samson. He also condemned anti-conversion laws in India and blasphemy laws in Pakistan and Nigeria, noting blasphemy-related murders in both over the past week.

Ambassador Hussain also noted grim anniversaries of the persecution of Falun Gong in China that started 25 years ago and the 10th anniversary of the Yazidi genocide in Iraq. To mark these anniversaries, survivors were in attendance. A Falun Gong member shared with me about how CCP officials jailed her and persecuted her family, who remain in China. Uighur activist Jewler Ilham, also in attendance, had a similar story. Pari Ibrahim from the Yazidi community spoke of her community’s resilience.

Having America’s top diplomat, along with his ambassador for religious freedom, speak in concrete terms about specific country situations is welcomed. While criticism of Iran and China is expected, his discussion of India and Pakistan is noteworthy. Foreign capitals will take note. Too often, the temptation to make general critiques less disruptive to bilateral relations wins out, but vague comments have little impact on conditions on the ground. Seeing these diplomats address individual situations where religious freedom abuses occur is a crucial starting point and powerful expression of U.S. concern.

However, for the event to be more than a photo-op, new diplomatic efforts must follow to press countries to reform. Not just words “expressing concern,” but consequential diplomacy willing to extract a cost if egregious abuses continue.

In our increasingly complicated world, some will argue that the United States cannot afford to waste precious diplomatic capital on human rights. Yet, if the State Department ignores core American values in conducting American diplomacy, we do a disservice to our country and the world we want to lead.

Wednesday’s event was an encouraging sign. To ensure the words have impact, however, the State Department must follow through with action.

Knox Thames served in a State Department special envoy role during the Obama and Trump administrations, focusing on religious minorities in the Middle East and South/Central Asia. His book “ENDING PERSECUTION” will be released on September 1.

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