Addressing the Rising Tide of Restrictions on Freedom of Religion

The beginning of a new year offers an opportunity for many to reflect and to set the priorities that will carry them through the next twelve months. I believe the priorities we choose and the values by which we live set the trajectory for our success.

That is why on the heels of a year in which we witnessed an alarming number of attacks on religious diversity and pluralism around the world, it is critical that we reaffirm our commitment to protecting and promoting the universal right to freedom of religion or belief for all. Protecting this fundamental freedom is a core priority that reflects American values and smart diplomacy. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do as it plays a major role in contributing to more stable, progressive, and dynamic societies.

The rising tide of restrictions on freedom of religion is a crisis that is emerging worldwide and has disproportionately threatened religious minority groups. This threat touches communities all around the globe, as every faith group is a minority somewhere. Whether Christians in the Middle East, Yazidis in Iraq, Baha’is in Iran, Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh, Muslims in India, or Sunni Muslims in Shia areas or vice versa, the threat is clear and present.

I witnessed the effects of this threat first hand during my recent trip to Lebanon, a country with many religious groups, and one of three countries that is also bearing the brunt of incredible refugee flows from Syria. During my trip, I visited and met with religious leaders and refugees from religious minority communities from Syria and Iraq who shared heartbreaking stories about their tragic loss of loved ones and expressed a profound sense that they could never return home. One family I met had 32 cousins who had been kidnapped by ISIL; going home was not an option for them. While I was inspired by their bravery, the thought of these events contributing to the gradual fading of a world religion -- from the region of its birth -- struck me as tragic. This shared suffering caused me to ponder how long will religious diversity and pluralism survive in the region? The answer to that question opens the door to a complex conversation, but one where we only need to look at the events of the last year to see there is clear cause for concern, and need for concerted action.

Terrorists and non-state actors --such as ISIL, the Nusra Front, and al Qaeda -– have been some of the worst persecutors of religious minorities; their barbarity is well known and has been well-documented. But individual attackers have also perpetrated acts of violence against religious minorities. And unfortunately in far too many places governments continue to limit the exercise of religious freedoms. 

As the State Department’s first Special Advisor on Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, I look forward to working with my new colleagues to address these challenges. In the face of these challenges we are responding both in principle and action. Wherever people are endangered, threatened, or face discrimination, we are working vigorously to find ways to help. Here is how:

  • We are pressuring governments to reform, so that restrictive laws and policies are changed and members of religious minorities are able to practice their faith freely and peacefully.
  • We are working to create and sustain the conditions under which religious minorities can remain in their ancestral homeland. For example, through coordinated airstrikes by the Counter-ISIL Coalition, the United States has acted to protect minority groups in imminent danger in Iraq and Syria.
  • We have been providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians and Iraqis, including to refugees and displaced populations, since the start of the crisis.
  • We are supporting resettlement as an important tool of protection for those who cannot return home or locally integrate. In the context of Iraq and Syria, many of the refugees who have been resettled, or who are currently under consideration for U.S. resettlement, are Christians, Yezidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities. 
  • We are working with religious communities in the region on the importance of proactively cataloging sacred items to successfully protect and help recreate conditions where religious communities feel a connection to their ancestral homelands and wish to stay.
  • We are encouraging states to provide a counter-narrative through academic curricula that teaches the value and beauty of diversity, as well as respect for human rights and religious freedom.
  • We are calling on governments to  take proactive steps to protect communities of religious minorities during their holy days or religious gatherings.

And as a global challenge needs a global response, we are working with our partners and allies to strengthen and deepen our response to this crisis. 

The attacks on religious pluralism and diversity of thought will be the defining issue of the 21st century. We have seen success, but much work remains. We can and will aim to do more. Together, as a community of values-- the government, civil society, and faith communities-- we can make an impact. To be effective we must redouble our efforts to advance human rights, while also expanding our work to protect cultural and religious heritage, build interfaith relations, and promote tolerance. With the full participation of all individuals, including religious minorities, societies can much better unleash human talent and advance human dignity that strengthens peace, security, and prosperity. 

About the Author: Knox Thames serves as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

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Charles G.
United Kingdom
January 15, 2016
I read recently that out of over twenty one hundred Iraqi refugees resettled in the United States only 53 were Christian. This doesn't look like an appropriate response to the scale of the problem for that community. I don't doubt Mr Knox's sincerity but I fear that this administration has already failed to respond for too long.
Askari K.
January 15, 2016
What about attitude of majority group, who do not want to see Minority in their town/country. for exp. Ahmedis in Pakistan, shiite in SA and etc etc. What strategy may keep such fellows at their native place?
A man lights a candle in the holy shrine of Lalish, north of Mosul, Iraq, as thousands of Yazidis celebrate the New Year
A Hindu devotee prays at the Sangam, the confluence of rivers Ganges and Yamuna, on "Mauni Amavasya," or new moon day, during the annual month long Hindu religious fair "Magh Mela"
A Muslim father holds his daughter's hands in his palms and prays before breaking fast on the first day of holy month Ramadan in New Delhi, India.
Palestinian children hold candles during a vigil held in Beirut, Lebanon by a Palestinian group in solidarity with Christians abducted in Syria and Iraq
Posted by Knox Thames
January 14, 2016


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