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GUEST OPINION: Why freedon of religion matters across the world abroad

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By CHARLES C. HAYNES
First Amendment Center
It was anything but a happy New Year for Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen who has spent the last year in an Iranian prison because of his faith.

In December 2012, the Idaho minister was visiting his native Iran to help start an orphanage when he was arrested for “undermining the Iranian government,” according to the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group working on Abedini’s behalf.

Despite torture, denial of medical care and separation from his wife and two small children, Pastor Abedini steadfastly refuses to renounce his faith — a condition reportedly set by the Iranian authorities for his release.

Abedini’s case has received media attention and high-profile support from many sources, including the White House and Billy Graham. But hundreds of other prisoners of conscience — people of many faiths — languish in jail cells across the world largely unrecognized.

Last month, the plight of people imprisoned for practicing their faith got some much-needed attention in a report entitled “Freedom of Religion or Belief” issued by Human Rights Without Frontiers, an international advocacy group with offices and affiliates throughout the world. (See the full report at www.hrwf.org)

The report highlights 24 countries that arrested and jailed people in 2013 for violating laws that prohibit freedom of religion. Five nations — China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and South Korea — are cited as “countries of particular concern” with large numbers of prisoners.

The dismal human rights records of totalitarian regimes like China and Iran are, of course, well known. In China, for example, members of “house churches” (Protestant groups not sanctioned by the government) are routinely harassed and often arrested.

Iran oppresses all minority religious groups, but gives special attention to Baha’is — a religious tradition condemned by the government as heretical and dangerous. More than 100 Baha’is are currently in Iranian prisons, including most of the community’s leadership.

It’s surprising and disappointing, however, to find South Korea — a democratic country and close American ally — high on the list.

According to the report, 599 young South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving 18-month prison sentences in 2013 for conscientious objection to military service.

Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea “has relentlessly prosecuted young Witness men who refuse military service and has not provided an alternative to resolve the issue.” An astonishing 17,549 Witnesses have been sentenced to a combined total of 34,100 years in prison for refusing to perform military service.

Behind the mind-numbing statistics, of course, are individual human beings — each one with a heartbreaking story of being forced to choose between their faith and going to prison.

Akemanjiang, to cite just one example, is a Muslim in China arrested in 2008 for not following government policy requiring restaurants to stay open during the month of Ramadan. For this act of conscience, he is in prison to this day.

Americans to do at least two things:

First, urge the American government to move religious freedom higher on the list of priorities in our dealings with other nations. Where the United States has leverage — in South Korea for example — we should use it to make the case for liberty of conscience.

And second, call attention to the imprisoned so that they cannot be forgotten.

By shining the spotlight of public awareness on the plight of people of faith, Americans can help hold these governments accountable — and, in some cases, embarrass them into releasing those they hold captive.