USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience puts a “face” on persecution

Former USCIRF Commissioner Rev. Thomas J. Reese introduces Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project [Photo credit: USCIRF]

One year ago the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) launched the Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, a campaign intended to call attention to individuals unjustly imprisoned simply for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Each of the USCIRF commissioners “adopted” and advocated on behalf of men and women held captive in places where religious freedom is scarce or nonexistent. Since the project began, several prisoners have been released, but many remain behind bars, often under egregious conditions.

Some names are familiar: Pastor Andrew Brunson, the American pastor held in a Turkish prison for nearly two years on trumped-up charges of espionage; Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger and activist sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for encouraging religious and political debate; and Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the missing Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by Chinese government officials at the age of six more than 20 years ago.

Others are less recognizable: Gulmira Imin, an Uyghur Muslim detained in the Xinjiang Women’s Prison since 2009 and serving a life sentence; Abdul Shakoor, an 80-year-old Ahmadi serving an eight-year sentence in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy and stirring up religious hatred; and Thich Quang Do, Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, under house arrest since 2003.

Former USCIRF Commissioner Clifford May (whose term expired last week) noted that in some instances, the prisoner advocacy project “may have helped win their release earlier than otherwise would have been the case.” For those not yet released, May added, “It is important that those who are imprisoned know that somebody cares about them.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the landmark legislation that led to the creation of USCIRF and provided a framework for prioritizing religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. USCIRF commissioners advise members of congress, the president, and the State Department on matters of religious freedom. USCIRF programs like the Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project highlight the personal dimensions and cruel costs of religious freedom violations.

It is important that those who are imprisoned know that somebody cares about them

“While private diplomacy has a role to play, public inattention can often lead to more persecution, not freedom,” said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, whose term as USCIRF commissioner also just concluded. “We want [prisoners] to know that they are not forgotten. We want to draw attention to the laws, policies, and practices that led to their imprisonment and hold their governments accountable to what they are doing.”

21Wilberforce is grateful for the leadership USCIRF provides in promoting international religious freedom. We welcome the newly appointed USCIRF commissioners and extend our sincere appreciation to former commissioners, whose dedication reminds us of the words of Nobel laureate and Nazi holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who wrote:

“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”

Wiesel’s words should convict us daily as we are reminded of the thousands of individuals harassed, detained, imprisoned, or persecuted simply for exercising their deepest held beliefs.

Take Action:

1. Read more about the USCIRF Prisoners of Conscience Project

2. Visit the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights and read about congressional efforts to defend prisoners of conscience

3. Be inspired by the words of Hebrews 13:3 — Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering

Take Action