Displaced Kachin residents cross the Malikha river on 26 April to escape the fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and Myanmar government troops.

Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Iran are among the countries criticised for their religious-freedom records in the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, launched yesterday (29 May) in Washington DC.

The report references the violence against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in Myanmar, whose situation is still “terrible” and “requires the world’s attention”, according to the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback.

Meanwhile, he told a press briefing the situation in Myanmar’s Kachin state showed there had been “no progress” in the country.

“If anything, the administration there is doubling now its effort [in] going after the Kachin [Christian minority] in the northern part of the country, and the refugee numbers are increasing in the northern part now of Burma,” he told journalists, adding: “In recent weeks … the fighting there has expanded [and] another ethnic religious minority [is] being pushed out of the country and their normal areas.”

The ambassador said he was not given a visa when he wanted to visit the country to meet with its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and visit some of the areas affected by violence.

Saudi Arabia also came in for criticism, despite Saudi’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, pushing a reform agenda in the conservative Kingdom by lifting restrictions on women and pledging a more “moderate” Islam.

The report referenced countless instances of people who had been harassed, arrested and convicted in Saudi Arabia because of their alleged activities and/or connections with groups that the government would deem a “threat”.

Although Brownback said he was pleased by what he had been hearing from the crown prince, he stressed that words alone were not enough and that action was needed.

Despite promises to ban extremist ideologies from schools and universities, Saudi textbooks were found recently to still promote hatred toward religious minorities, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

New initiative

On Iran, the ambassador said: “We hear and see horrific reports … on the lack of religious freedom and the persecution of people that aren’t in the majority faith stream and practising as the government directs, and we see a radical export of that philosophy as well out of Iran, and trouble in many other countries in the Middle East.”

World Watch Monitor reported earlier this month how prison terms have been getting longer for Iranian Christians.

Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and Iran are also on the 2018 Open Doors’ World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, used the occasion to announce a new Ministerial-level initiative to advance religious freedom. He said he was hoping to host “counterparts from like-minded governments, as well as representatives of international organisations, religious communities, and civil society” at the Department of State on 24-26 July.