The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East may appear grim, but there is hope that the situation could change amid the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said Friday at a reception on Capitol Hill.
“The efforts of various countries to draft constitutions provide a window of opportunity to consider not only protection for members of religious minorities, but for every individual,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair of the commission (pictured at right).
Her remarks were made at an exhibit on religious minorities in the Middle East held 19 July, 2012. The Baha’is of the United States joined 15 other non-profit organizations and religious associations representing religious minorities throughout the Middle East, such as the Coptic Christians of Egypt and Assyrians and Yezidis of Iraq. The groups shared with Congressional staffers and members of the public the tenets of their faiths and their histories of religious persecution in the Middle East.
“Tonight, we recognize the importance of the religious minorities in many countries, whether it be the Hindus of Pakistan, the Christians, Jews, or Baha’is of Iran, or minority Muslim sects,” said Congressman Brad Sherman. “We are working with all of them to make sure that those who live in the Middle East have full rights of citizenship regardless of their religion.”
The event, co-hosted by the International Religious Freedom Caucus, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Congressmen Sherman, Trent Franks, Heath Shuler and Gus Bilirakis, had the dual purpose of promoting a stronger cultural awareness of the traditions and practices of these minorities as well as bringing to light the challenges they face.
“We must hold Middle Eastern governments accountable, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring,” said Congressman Bilirakis.
Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran are considered by the commission to be among the worst religious freedom violators, Lantos Swett said.
“While religious minorities in Iraq and Egypt are threatened by a climate of impunity that encourages violence against them by private citizens, in other Mideast nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the biggest threat they face comes from the direct hand of government,” she said.
Several speakers, including U.S. Ambassador At-large for Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook and Congressman Franks, emphasized that having religious freedom is important for a democracy to develop.
“We find that when people are free to believe or not to believe, sectarian tensions diminish, terrorism crimes have less traction, civil society can grow, and the seeds of democracy begin to bloom,” Johnson Cook said.
The speakers also made a point of addressing some of the specific abuses faced by the different minority groups and those responsible for perpetrating it.
“Since 1979, Iranian authorities have murdered more than 200 Baha’is while removing 10,000 from government and university jobs. For the first time since the early years of the Khomeini revolution, more than 100 Baha’is are being held in prison solely because of their religious beliefs, including seven of its leaders and several Baha’i educators,” said Lantos Swett, adding that, “for anybody who knows the Baha’i community, it is such a source of pain to imagine that this incredibly wonderful and peaceful religion is being targeted in this way.”
Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Lantos Swett also articulated the course of action that the United States should take in response to this persecution.
“For Iran, where the problem is religious repression through the dictates of specific Iranian officials, we advocate that the United States continue to identify these officials – including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad – and impose asset freezes and travel bans on them, while demanding the release of all prisoners of conscience,” she said.
The event emphasized the spirit of oneness and brotherhood that must undergird all efforts to combat religious persecution.
“True tolerance is not pretending that we have no differences with each other,” said Congressman Franks. “True tolerance is in loving each other, respecting each other, caring for each other, and treating each other peacefully, in spite of our differences.”
Drawing on symbolism from a traditional Jewish story that she shared with the audience in her closing remarks, Lantos Swett eloquently summed up the true end goal of the fight to uphold religious freedom in all parts of the world.
“If we can look at one another and recognize in the faces of strangers the face of our brothers and sisters, then we will know that the night has turned to day,” she said.
Check out more photos of the event from the International Religious Freedom Caucus.