The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is calling attention to millions of “religious prisoners” being held and persecuted around the world — and the commissioners hope a new, congressionally mandated database will help.
Beginning in October, the commission began listing publicly persons held in captivity for their faith such as the leader of an underground Christian Orthodox church in Eritrea, a Scientologist imprisoned in Russia and a human rights blogger in Iran who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes.
The database, which was created under the Frank Wolf Act of 2016, tracks faith victims and “religious prisoners of conscience” in nations listed as of “particular concern” by the State Department.
The commission’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project database aims to heighten awareness of people imprisoned in countries cracking down on religious expression and encourage advocacy for them.
“We’ve been told by these people that the worst part of imprisonment is the fear of being forgotten,” said Commissioner Gayle Manchin.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom estimates that 1,500 prisoners are detained because of their faith around the world, not counting the nearly 2 million Uighur Muslims being held in Chinese detention facilities.
The commission also lists some 160 persons on its Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims (FORBS) List, counting those currently held in countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and China. The commission’s website provides information on the captive-taking nations, the faith being persecuted and the type of abuse being inflicted, such as detainment or forced renunciation.
That list is growing, as advocacy organizations upload new profiles of religious prisoners of conscience.
“It’s important to note that the FORBS List is not intended to be a comprehensive list,” said Kirsten Lavery, an international legal specialist with the commission.
She noted that the list currently weighs heavily toward imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.
“That’s merely reflective of the databases that have been uploaded so far [and is not] reflective of worldwide trends,” Ms. Lavery said.
The commission also lists 14 persons as religious prisoners of conscience whose cases have been sponsored by commissioners. This list includes American pastor David Lin, who has been imprisoned in China since 2009; Leah Sharibu, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2018 and refused to convert to Islam; and Hamid Kamal Mohammad bin Haydara, a Yemeni Baha’i who was taken into custody in Yemen in 2013.
Mrs. Manchin called attention to one of her cases — Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, a human-rights activist imprisoned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in 2014. Ms. Iraee had written an unpublished story that criticized the official policy of stoning women to death for adultery when guards arrested her in 2014.
The website lists some religious prisoners of conscience listed as “released,” include the American pastor Andrew Brunson, a longtime Christian evangelist who Turkey imprisoned on espionage charges. Mr. Brunson was released in 2018 and returned to the U.S.
Other high-profile religious prisoners in captivity include Gedhun Choekyi Nyima — the Panchen Lama, or second holiest person in Tibetan Buddhism — who was kidnapped by Chinese authorities from his boyhood home in Tibet in 1995.
“They say he’s a perfectly normal Tibetan boy and does not wish to be disturbed, but that was over 10 years ago,” Mrs. Manchin said.
A 2016 report by the Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers listed faith prisoners in more than 20 nations, including Vietnam, Sudan and Egypt. They face penalties such as flogging and caning for charges such as blasphemy.
According to the human rights report, China, North Korea and Iran are the most dangerous nations in which to practice a religion not recognized by the state.
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