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By John Cosenza & John Pinna

In 1998 the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was signed into law to combat the growing concern of religious persecution across the globe. The bipartisan legislation aimed to promote greater religious freedom in countries which engage in or tolerate systematic violations of religious freedom and to advance the rights of individuals persecuted for their religious beliefs. The IRFA constructed modern standards of religious freedom and redefined religious persecution to include;

(A) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment;

(B) prolonged detention without charges;

(C) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or

(D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons

                        (International Religious Freedom Act, 105th Congress)[1]

The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

Despite these efforts, authoritarian and militaristic regimes continue to persecute religious minority communities; notably the Christian community. In a renewed effort to advance religious freedom, the Trump Administration and the U.S. State Department hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July 2018. The three-day Washington, D.C.-based event attracted delegates from over 80 nations with the goals of identifying global challenges to religious freedom and developing innovative responses to persecution based on religion.[2]

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback led discussions at the Ministerial event. Both advanced the event’s mission by participating in panels and addressing large congregations of ministers, human rights, NGO, political, and think tank leaders. Ambassador Brownback’s inspiring remarks concluding the event was greeted with applause.

“We believe these conversations are essential to promoting and defending religious freedom around the world and I am certainly encouraged. I believe the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down around the world. I think it really starts with this meeting. And proceeding forward from here we can bring that down so religious freedom can be a reality for people around the world. Not just merely words that we have said but an actual reality.”[3]

The Ministerial event highlighted the Administration’s unwavering commitment to international religious freedom with the release of the Potomac Declaration and its accompanying plan of action. Each document set the tone for the Administration’s foreign policy on religious freedom by reinforcing the ideals of the IRFA and establishing methods to hold nations accountable. During a roundtable discussion at the event, Pompeo stated, “The Potomac Declaration is a formal affirmation that says right up and front that the U.S. takes religious freedom seriously, that we will work with others around the world to help those under attack for their beliefs, and that we expect leaders around the world to make it their priority as well.”[4]

The event was well received by political figures from both aisles as well as individuals like Knox Thames, the U.S. State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East, South, and Central Asia. According to Thames, “this field is starting to understand that, of course, you advocate for those in your community, but the way to ensure your community’s long-term success is if everyone in society has religious freedom. I’m encouraged to see this evolution.”[5] Although encouraging, the Trump administration must first identify where and why religious persecution exists to safeguard religious freedom.

Accurately identifying religious persecution can be a difficult task. Although religious communities face persecution, their religious beliefs may not be the inherent reason. Indeed, religious communities across the globe are often persecuted for reasons beyond their faith such as ethical, political, or socio-economic reasons. The following analysis provides specific examples where religious persecution is thoroughly intertwined with a variety of political, ethnic, social, and economic positions which could be responsible for acts of persecution. As world leaders demonstrate a recommitment to religious freedom, understanding the context and origins of each reported instance of persecution is essential to implement meaningful change. Creating a solution for the wrong problem will not solve anything.

Afghanistan and the Hazara Community

Modern day Afghanistan is frequently cited as a nation that systematically persecutes religious communities that do not adhere to Sunni Islam. Yet, it is important to note that; 1) Afghanistan has a constitution that grants religious freedom to all citizens and adheres to international religious agreements, 2) Afghanistan remains a pluralistic society with dozens of communities that speak their own languages, have their own set of customs and practice their own religions relatively undisturbed, and 3) Afghanistan is a conflict zone home to various terrorist organizations. The Hazara community is an ethnic and religious minority with a long and contentious history in Afghanistan. The Hazara community and their supporters believe they are frequently attacked or persecuted due to their religious faith. However, solely attributing religious beliefs to these attacks can be misleading. The origins of Hazara persecution has a long and complex history but can be equally attributed to their ethnic and socio-economic values. Indeed, “one of the main factors in Hazaras’ continued persecution is their Shi’a religious faith, their distinctive ethnic origins, as well as their having separate economic and political roots.”[6]

In addition to their faith, Hazaras are considered a political and cultural threat to the main stream Sunni Afghani establishment. Unlike most ethnic groups, the Hazara community promotes education and is more progressive concerning women’s rights. Educated Hazara women, “in particular, those who returned from exile in Iran are often as active as men in civic and political arenas. Hazara families are eager to educate their daughters.”[7]

Melissa Chiovenda is a Doctor in Anthropology at Emerson College whose research focus is Afghanistan. Melissa works particularly with the Hazara ethnic group and similarly concludes “Even open-minded non-Hazaras with a high degree of education have admitted to me that they feel a certain discomfort when they encounter Hazaras in certain positions of authority in Afghanistan.”[8]

Conflict zones compound the difficult prospect of assessing religious persecution, primarily because all communities are likely to be persecuted. The recent presence of terrorist organizations such as ISIS in Afghanistan has inevitably resulted in larger scale violence across all religious and ethnic minority communities.

Ukraine and the Eastern Orthodox Community

Another example of the misidentification of religious persecution is the targeting of Ukrainian Orthodox churches in both Crimea and the Donbas. In 2014, Russian forces invaded the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine and seized key military and governmental institutions. Unexpectedly, Russian forces targeted another institution – the branch of the Ukrainian Christian Orthodox Church located in Kyiv. Targeting Ukraine’s Kyiv-based religious institutions appears to be an example of religious persecution at first glance. However, contextualizing Russian aggression over the last decade and their specific actions in Crimea may paint a different picture.

Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian with ambitious goals to spread Russia’s political sphere of influence. In 2008, Russian forces invaded Georgia. In 2014, a Russian-backed region in Moldova known as Transinitria voted on a referendum to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Consequently, Russia has since enjoyed strong influence over the region. In 2014 and 2015, the invasion of Crimea and military intervention in the Syrian civil war confirmed Putin’s ambitions to annex portions of Eastern Europe and undermine the United States in the Middle East. This begs the question; are Ukrainian religious leaders persecuted for their religious beliefs or because they refuse to subscribe to Russian authority?

An interview with Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya, an official spokesman of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, suggests the latter. According to Archbishop Zorya, “the Russian occupation authorities have done everything so that the religious atmosphere on the peninsula is similar to theirs (Russia); that is, loyal and controllable.”[9] Moreover, those demonstrating fealty to Moscow enjoy religious freedom in Crimea, according to a leading Ukrainian-based human rights group.[10]

The treatment of Ukrainian Orthodox Christian Church leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate supports this argument. After the 2014 invasion, Russian authorities demanded all religious organizations in Crimea re-register under Russian law. Ukrainian religious leaders belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate were “offered any and all aid by the local de facto authorities”, according to Archbishop Yevstratiy. “Their priests were even honored for their role in the annexation of the peninsula,” he adds.[11] By contrast, those who refused to acknowledge or re-register under Russian law were subject to varying consequences.

Thomas J. Reese, chair of the United States Commissions on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) traveled to Crimea to investigate the conditions of religious freedom. According to Reese, “what we saw and heard confirmed the reality of Russian persecution and harassment of religious minorities”[12], specifically regarding Crimea’s Tatar ethnic and religious minority. Russian authorities have co-opted the spiritual life of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority and arrested or driven into exile its community representatives.” Although Russian repression of Crimean Tatars is mainly motivated by political rather than religious concerns, it disrupts Crimean Tatar religious activities and institutions.”[13] In other words, it is possible that Russian forces are targeting disobedient Orthodox Christians and Tatars to enforce political assimilation rather than entirely quell Christian and Tatar beliefs or practices.

El Salvador and the Christian Community

In recent years El Salvador has surpassed Honduras and Venezuela as the most murderous nation state on earth.[14] With over 60,000 gang members in a country with a population of just 6.5 million, gang violence has infiltrated all levels of society and has effectively reduced the state to a war-zone.[15] Similar to the examples of Afghanistan and Ukraine, external forces has been intertwined with religious persecution since gang members ambushed a bus full of Christian missionaries and murdered six members of the Evangelical Prince of Peace church in 2014. However, according to John L. Allen Jr, editor at Crux, a magazine focusing on Vatican and Catholic affairs, El Salvador has an interesting love/hate relationship between churches and gangs.[16] Both gangs and churches compete for the lives and souls of the population. Analyzing this complex relationship challenges the notion that gang members persecute Christian communities in El Salvador solely for their religious beliefs.

On one hand, Roman Catholic and Evangelical churches are the natural enemies of El Salvadorian gangs. Gang members and religious communities frequently clash, leaving innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.[17] Moreover, Religious leaders openly “oppose the drug trade that’s the financial bread and butter for the gangs, the use of violence, and other forms illegality” that sustain their operations.[18] On the other hand, “the gangs also demonstrate remarkable respect for the churches. Members say there are really only two ways to leave a gang – death, or a genuine decision to change your life that almost always involves religion.”[19] It is frequently reported many gang members will seek an alternative lifestyle by turning to Christian churches or a devoted life to God.

Author Sarah Maslin of The Economist reports, “Over the past year, the church has become a refuge for recently released prisoners who are trying to leave the Barrio 18 gang and pledge themselves to God.”[20] This interesting relationship between these organizations reveals two important facts. First, gang members, who seemingly choose to devote themselves to God to escape their circumstances, clearly do not denounce the worship of or religious practice of Christianity. Secondly, any attacks against Christian communities are likely motivated by economic and operational reasons more so than religious reasons. El Salvadorian gangs must operate their vast criminal organizations efficiently and are likely to persecute any individual or organization that oppose them; even Christian communities and leaders.


In each of these nuanced situations, additional analysis is required to make final determination as to whether the religious community was persecuted based on their religious beliefs or other co-located factors, such as politics or economics. The ideals outlined in the IRFA and the Potomac Declaration may provide the right context to differentiate religious persecution from other co-located factors. In each example discussed, persecuted individuals did not typically meet the criteria outlined in the IRFA or the Potomac Declaration. If they did, it was more so linked to social, economic, or political reasons. It is not the purpose of this paper to make that final determination, rather, to point out that each happened in a complex situation where co-occurring factors of the population could be a reason for persecution. If we are to successfully advance the religious freedom of communities in these situations, we must understand why they are being targeted. Without comprehensive context and knowledge, any solution we devise will be solving the wrong problem.

John Cosenza is a Market Research Analyst at Zitter Health Insights as well as a part time Research Consultant at the Mitchell Firm, a Washington D.C. based lobbying and consultancy firm. John graduated from Marist College with a dual degree in History & Political Science and graduated from Norwich University with a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy & International Business. John is an experienced professional with a unique combination of primary and secondary research skills as well as writing skills. He has experience working in the private and non-profit sector conducting secondary, qualitative, and quantitative research for multiple organizations including the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency, an international marketing consultancy firm, and a Washington, D.C. based Non-Government Organization (NGO). In addition to his research, John has co-authored multiple articles with Mr. John T. Pinna of the Mitchell firm focusing on international human rights issues and international religious persecution. John continues to work with political, think tank, and NGO leaders in the Washington D.C. metro area to advocate for international religious freedom. He can be reached at [email protected] or

[1] 105th Congress of the United States of America, “The International Religious Freedom Act” (1998).

[2]  United States State Department, “The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” (2018)

[3] Brownback, Sam. United States State Department, “The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” (2018).

[4] Pompeo, Mike. United States State Department, “The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” (2018).

[5] Green, Emma. “The Trump Administration Convenes the ‘Super Bowl’ of Religious Freedom.” The Atlantic (2018).

[6] Minority Groups International, “Afghanistan Profile – Hazaras”, (2018).

[7] Ibid, 1.

[8] Hucal, Sara. “Afghanistan” Who are the Hazaras?” Al Jazeera, (2016).

[9] Wesolowsky, Tony. “Struggling to Believe: Ukrainian Orthodox Church Under Pressure in Crimea.” RadioFreeEurope, (2018).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] May D., Clifford; Reese J., Thomas. “Op-Ed: Another Missed Opportunity: Russia Evades Designation for Religious Repression.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (2017).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Glader, Paul. “Christianity is Growing Rapidly in EL Salvador – Along with Gang Violence & Murder Rates.” The Washington Post, (2015).

[15] Martines, Oscar; Lemus, Efren; Martinez, Carlos; Sontag, Deborah. “Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador.” The New York Times, (2016).

[16] Allen L. John Jr. “In El Salvador, There’s a Love/Hate Relationship Between Churches & Gangs.” Crux, (2015).

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Maslin, Sarah. “Can Religion Solve El Salvador’s Gang Problem?” The Economist, (2017).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates