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State Department condemns Iran, China for persecuting religious minorities

(AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference on Monday, April 22, 2019, at the Department of State in Washington.

The State Department condemned China and Iran on Friday for treating religious minorities as national security threats meriting surveillance, imprisonment and sometimes death.

In introducing the annual report on International Religious Freedom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck an unusual personal note, noting he had been a Sunday school teacher and a church deacon, and took a swipe at Washington.

“That might sound unusual to a lot of people inside the Beltway,” he said. “But I am one of millions of Americans, and billions of people across the world, who live in the knowledge of a higher power. I often humbly reflect on how God’s providence has guided me to this office, to defend this cause.”

Samuel Brownback, the ambassador for religious freedom, said: “We believe there is no more important time for the United States to promote religious freedom than now.”

The annual report looks at the government policies that violate religious belief and practices in every country of the world except the United States.

China and Iran are among 10 countries of particular concern when it comes to religious freedom, meaning they may face sanctions. The chapters are considerably longer than those of North Korea, which Brownback called “horrible” for religious freedom, or on Myanmar, where ethnic Rohingya have been subjected to harassment and violence.

The report was released amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran, as well as China.

The United States and China have been in a trade war for nearly a year. While talks go on, the Trump administration has shied away from placing sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the detention of 1 million or more ethnic Uighurs and other minority Muslims in the northwest region of Xinjiang. Brownback said some sanctions have been placed on the manufacturers of equipment used to surveil religious minorities, and the United States frequently raises its concerns publicly.

Iranian Christians and other religious minorities are among those who have lost opportunities to emigrate to the United States as part of deep cuts in refugee admissions from Iran. Brownback said the criteria for religious minorities getting preference as refugees changed during the Obama administration, and it is time for the policy to be reviewed.

The religious freedom report lists detailed accounts of religious minorities in countries around the world who were subjected to “death, forced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison because of their religious beliefs or affiliation.”

Pompeo has spoken forcefully against the treatment of Uighur Muslims sent to what he has called “reeducation camps.” U.S. attempts to berate the Chinese have sparked little change, however. After Pompeo met with four Uighurs in March to discuss human rights abuses, the aunt and uncle of one of them, a U.S. citizen, learned his aunt and uncle had been moved from a camp and sentenced to eight years in prison.

The report said Chinese Christians also have been increasingly oppressed, with authorities closing churches, burning Bibles and ordering believers to renounce their faith.

The chapter on Iran accuses the government of meting out harsh punishments to those who are not Shiite Muslims. Iran’s penal code specifies death for crimes like enmity against God, corruption on earth and insulting the prophets.

But there is little the U.S. government can do about it, except protest publicly. With no diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington, the report says, U.S. diplomats “did not have opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.”