Three Countries of Particular Concern

Burmese Rohingya Association members protesting as part of World Refugee Rally, Brisbane, Australia June 2015

What do the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Eritrea, and the Baha’is in Iran have in common? For one, they are all some of the most persecuted people on earth. Second, Burma, Iran and Eritrea are all designated as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) by both the U.S. State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Burma and Iran have been on the CPC list since 1999, and Eritrea since 2004.

And finally, in the first four months of 2016, these three countries are among the top 10 in terms of numbers of refugees admitted to the U.S.

If you were to meet refugees from one of these countries here, would you be aware of the religious oppression they or their loved ones might have faced in their home countries?

The Geneva Convention of 1951 identifies a refugee as:

“ … someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.”

According to USCIRF’s 2016 Annual Report, Burma’s government and non-state actors continue violating the religious freedom of the Rohingya Muslims and minority Christians. The persecution of the Rohingya is particularly severe. USCIRF states: “Burma’s government continues to deny Rohingya Muslims citizenship, freedom of movement, access to healthcare and other basic services.” In addition, the Burmese government revoked the state issued temporary ID cards (“white cards”) held by many of the Rohingya. This effectively prohibited them from participating in elections and left many without any identification. During the first half of 2015, “approximately 31,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis fled by boat.”

In Eritrea, the government requires strict registration “to legally standardize and articulate religious institutions and activities.” Currently, there are four officially recognized religions: the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. Those who lead or are involved in unregistered churches often face imprisonment, and according to USCIRF, “are not formally charged … [nor are they] permitted to legal counsel.” Currently, the State Department reports that between 1,200 and 3,000 people are imprisoned on religious grounds. The Commission report states that Jehovah’s Witnesses face severe persecution “for their political neutrality and conscientious objection to military service.” Eritrea requires military service. Entire Jehovah’s Witness congregations have been arrested.

A recent op-ed by Dr. Robert George and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett decries the persecution of the Baha’i community in Iran. According to the article, Iran has every intention of eradicating the Baha’i community from its borders. The op-ed states that:

“The Baha’is are effectively prohibited from attending colleges, chartering their own worship centers or schools, serving in the military, and obtaining various kinds of jobs. Even Baha’i marriages are not recognized. Over the past 10 years, about 850 Baha’is arbitrarily have been arrested. As of February 2016, more than 80 remain imprisoned.”

While these atrocities are just a few examples of the persecution that these communities have faced, it is essential for the U.S, as a country of immigrants and refugees, to seek to understand the plight of those who come to our borders for shelter and security.

Abigail Berg, Director of Government Relations

Action Items:

1. The next time you meet people from a foreign country, ask them their stories.

2. What is a CPC?

3. Read the USCIRF 2016 country reports about Burma, Eritrea and Iran.

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