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Story highlights

The annual report examines the state of religious freedom in almost 200 countries and territories

China continues to physically abuse, detain, arrest, torture and imprison members of religious minorities

Washington CNN  — 

The State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom was highly critical of a number of countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, a key US ally.

“Many governments around the world used discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in the agency’s Treaty Room. “No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, face discrimination because of their beliefs.”

The report found that in 2016, China continued to physically abuse, detain, arrest, torture and imprison Tibetan Buddhists, Christians and other religious minorities.

One Christian pastor was buried alive for trying to stop officials from demolishing his church, the report said, while three Tibetans set themselves on fire to protest China’s ongoing repression.

According to the report, the Turkish government continues to curtail the rights of non-Muslim minorities. Saudi Arabia arrested and imprisoned people on charges of insulting Islam and practicing sorcery. It also detained, harassed and occasionally deported foreigners for participating in private non-Islamic worship.

And in Kenya, human rights and Muslim religious groups reported that some Muslim communities, particularly ethnic Somalis, were “the target of government directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention.”

The annual report, mandated by Congress, examines the state of religious freedom in almost 200 countries and territories. It documents reported violations and abuses by governments, but also by terrorist groups and militias. 2016’s report showed that religious freedom remains imperiled the world over.

The longstanding idea driving the report is that beyond the moral good of religious freedom, countries that allow for religious and other freedoms are more stable, peaceful and economically prosperous – qualities that are in the interest of US national security. Governments that stifle their peoples, the report said, breed “instability, terrorism and violence” that can easily cross borders in an increasingly connected world.

“Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent,” Tillerson said. “Almost 80% of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root. We cannot ignore these conditions.”

ISIS’ brutal treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East has drawn a great degree of attention over the last few years. Tillerson drew attention to their oppression and killings of minorities including Yazidis and Christians, atrocities detailed in the 2016 Annual Report.

However, a State Department official struggled to explain how the report’s findings on religious persecution by ISIS and other groups square with President Donald Trump’s promotion of a “Muslim ban” as a presidential candidate and a subsequent decision to temporarily end refugee admissions for applicants from several countries, including Syria.

“Every year, unfortunately, there are way, way, way more refugees than any one country can possibly take in,” said Ambassador Michael Kozak, a senior adviser in the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which produces the report. He added that the Trump administration’s preference is to support the return of refugees to their home countries through stabilization efforts.

“I would put our record on religious freedom up against pretty much anybody in the world,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “The US has a long, strong tradition on this.”

In his remarks, Tillerson also called out Pakistan, declaring that “religious freedom is under attack” there. He pointed to death sentences issued in Iran under “vague apostasy laws” and the continued harassment of Bahai.

Bahrain, home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia Muslim clerics, community members, and opposition politicians. “Bahrain must stop discriminating against the Shiia communities,” Tillerson said.

In Turkey, the government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, restricting the number of clergy they could train. Religious minority groups in the country reported difficulty operating or opening houses of worship, challenging land and property disputes, and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religious classes.

Meanwhile, the government continued to prosecute individuals for “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group.”

And in Saudi Arabia, where religious freedom is not provided under the law, Shia Muslims encountered systematic discrimination in terms of access to public services and representation in government, educational and public sector jobs and in the courts.

The government convicted and imprisoned people on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic and sorcery. Lashings and fines were also used to punish perceived violators. “We remain concerned about the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia,” Tillerson said. He added that “of particular concern are attacks targeting Shiia Muslims.”

“We urge Saudi Arabia to embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens,” Tillerson said.

Chinese authorities harassed and imprisoned members of registered and unregistered religious groups, including members of unregistered Christian churches, or “house churches,” for pursuing activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. 

And China continued to severely discriminate against Tibetan Buddhists and Uigur Muslims. Chinese officials justified repression of Tibetan Buddhists by conflating them with separatist and pro independence movements.

The persecution took its toll in 2016. In July, officials in Sichuan province demolished more than 2,000 homes and expelled 2,000 or more monks and nuns from Larung Gar, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute, located in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Ganzi, or Kardze.

One Tibetan monk and two laypersons burned themselves alive in 2016 and three nuns committed suicide to protest China’s repression and restrictive government policies, according to media and NGO reports.

NGOs and journalists also documented an ongoing campaign by officials in Zhejiang Province to destroy Christian structures, as part of a campaign against “illegal structures” that began in 2014.

“Over 2,000 structures, including 600 crosses, had been destroyed or demolished by the end of the year,” the report said. Many Zhejiang pastors and congregants openly resisted the campaign, resulting in the detention, prosecution, or conviction of several church leaders and activists.

The report cites reports of the pastor of an unregistered church and his wife who were reportedly buried alive while protesting the demolition of their church. The pastor escaped, but his wife died.

There were also reports of the disappearance of a Catholic priest, and the death of a rights activist who advocated for Hui Muslim minorities and others that the government said was suicide. And the group Falun Gong reported dozens of its members died in detention.