Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey (Hamilton), speaks with Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom at a June 27 hearing in Washington on persecution against Christians. Franmarie Metzler, Official House Photographer

Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey (Hamilton), speaks with Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom at a June 27 hearing in Washington on persecution against Christians. Franmarie Metzler, Official House Photographer

By Mark Pattison | Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON – Speakers at a June 27 hearing on persecution against Christians by governments worldwide lamented the lack of action by many nations, but noted the improvements made by a couple of them.

"Christians remain the most persecuted religious group in the world – in the world! – and thus deserve this special hearing focusing on them," said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-New Jersey (Hamilton), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, who conducted the hearing.

Smith's assessment was confirmed by Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. "Christians face the most widespread harassment. Of any religious group. They're targeted in 144 countries globally," Brownback said.

The hearing came less than a week after the release of the State Department's annual report on religious freedom across the globe. A forum known as a "ministerial" on religious freedom will be held in July, with 115 nations on the invitation list, according to Brownback.

"In Iran, many languish in jail just for exercising their fundamental freedom to worship, to practice and teach their faith," Brownback said. "In Nicaragua, religious leaders report constant surveillance, intimidation and threats" and "beatings in broad daylight" by government forces.

China came in for a lion's share of the hearing, as it has an estimated 100 million Christians in the country, according to Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, a nongovernmental organization which working to achieve worldwide acceptance of religious freedom.

"China is trying to cut off the growth of Christianity and other religions by cutting off the pipeline – stopping the religious education of children," through a law that declares that no one under age 18 may receive religious education of any kind from anyone, Farr said. Teachers also must "profess that their teachings are compatible with the philosophy of the Chinese government and support the Chinese Communist Party."

Farr later criticized the Vatican for its accord with the Chinese government. "On the Vatican, excuse me for chuckling, but to put it as nicely as I can, I am befuddled by how the Vatican concluded this accord," he said. "I feared that this was a return to the foreign policy of the Vatican before Pope John Paul (II) came in, which was called a policy of realpolitik, but it was a policy for enemy indemnification, a failure to understand the evils of communism."

He added, "To just sign an accord that allows Beijing to participate in the choosing of Catholic bishops – Catholics have to have bishops – is a very bad idea on its face. ... I have no inside information, but I'm hoping the Vatican is assessing not only this accord but also what was supposed to be the next step but the next step – recognizing Beijing as the capital of China."

Moments later, Farr, formerly the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs in Washington, walked back those remarks.

"The Holy Father (Pope Francis) has been heroic in calling out religious persecution about all people. My comments were about the foreign ministry of the Vatican" and "their capacity to move in a direction they want to move in rather than a direction the country (on the other side of the negotiations) needs to move in," he said. "The diplomats around the Holy Father who have led the Vatican in the wrong direction. They are very talented men, and very dedicated priests. They just got this one wrong."

The Vatican describes the "accord" as a provisional agreement, which Church and Chinese officials signed last September. The Vatican did not release the text of the agreement nor provide details about what it entailed. News reports said the agreement would outline precise procedures for ensuring Catholic bishops are elected by the Catholic community in China and approved by the Pope before their ordinations and installations.

During the commission hearing, Sri Lanka also received focus. A series of coordinated bombings on Easter this year killed 259 people. Catholics are "being told not to go to Mass for their own protection. Some of their churches are guarded by members of the military," Brownback said, adding they are "understandably nervous about the government's intentions."

Pakistan was cited as a "country of particular concern" by the State Department for the first time last year, according to panelist Nadine Maenza, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who said she would like to see the designation continued.

"Forty people are on death row" in Pakistan due to the country's blasphemy laws, Maenza said. "They've seen the weaponization of these laws and the problems they're causing the country."

India, which borders both Pakistan and China, also deserves the same status, according to panelist David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, a nondenominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in over 70 countries where Christianity is socially or legally discouraged or oppressed.

In his organization's ranking of nations that oppress Christians, "India reaches number 10 on the list," Curry said. "When you have countries like Iran at number nine and Syria at number 11, it tells you about the level of intensity in India" of religious oppression.

Amid the bad news, Brownback mentioned good news.

The United Arab Emirates "did a groundbreaking activity this year when they hosted the first-ever papal visit on the Arabian peninsula," he said.

And in Uzbekistan – one of the countries we're worked with very closely," Brownback noted – "they've let 13,000 political and religious prisoners out of jail. ... They've registered some more churches – not as many as have asked, not enough – and there is a religious freedom law they are considering now."