Commentary: Release every religious prisoner of conscience

By Thomas J. Reese and Daniel Mark


Abdul Shakoor is a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan. Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi are leaders of the Baha’i community in Iran. Patriarch Abune Antonios headed the Orthodox Church in Eritrea.

These brave people share one tragic circumstance: They have been detained by their own governments, the culmination of a harsh denial of their religious freedom, a freedom that is enshrined in international human rights standards and laws.

Because they cannot speak for themselves, we must speak for these religious prisoners of conscience and for countless others who have been silenced. We do so as chair and vice chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). And we do so today, on International Religious Freedom Day, which marks the enactment on Oct. 27, 1998, of the International Religious Freedom Act.

In addition to creating an international religious freedom office in the State Department, the Religious Freedom Act established USCIRF as an independent, bipartisan federal body to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad and provide policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.

Nearly two decades later, standing for religious freedom worldwide is as important as ever. While more than 80 percent of the world’s population claims some religious affiliation, billions live under governments that perpetrate or tolerate serious abuses against freedom of religion or belief.

Abdul Shakoor is among them. In December, Pakistan’s government charged the 80-year-old optician with propagating his Ahmadi Muslim faith – a crime under the Pakistani penal code – and stirring up “religious hatred” and “sectarianism” – a crime under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act. Falsely accused of selling to an undercover police officer an Ahmadiyya commentary on the Qur’an and other publications, Shakoor received in January concurrent sentences of five years and three years in prison.

Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi are also serving prison time for their faith. They, along with five others, are known as the Baha’i Seven, the incarcerated leaders of Iran’s Baha’i religious minority, which the Iranian government relentlessly persecutes. Arrested in 2008, both were given 20-year sentences on false charges of espionage, propaganda against the “Islamic Republic,” and establishment of an illegal administration. 

Patriarch Abune Antonios has been detained since 2007, after government officials deposed him as head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the nation’s largest religious community. His “crimes” included his call for the release of prisoners of conscience and his refusal to excommunicate 3,000 parishioners who opposed Eritrea’s brutal dictatorship. Patriarch Antonios is being held incommunicado and is reportedly being denied medical treatment for severe diabetes.

The plight of these prisoners highlights the abysmal status of religious freedom in the countries that persecute them.

Pakistan deploys its blasphemy laws to convict and imprison people, primarily members of religious minorities, from Ahmadiyya Muslims to Christians, while failing to protect them from attacks from violent religious extremists.

Iran’s religious minorities, from Baha’is to Christians and Sunni Muslims, regularly face imprisonment and other abuse.

Eritrea’s government has been called the North Korea of Africa due to its vigorous assault on the rights of its people, including the right to religious freedom.

The plight of these religious prisoners and the status of religious freedom in their countries are deplorable.

For the sake of these and other prisoners of conscience we dare not be silent. We call for their immediate release, and we ask free people everywhere to urge Pakistan, Iran, and Eritrea to release every religious prisoner of conscience they hold.

We also urge the State Department to adhere to the Religious Freedom Act’s mandate to compile a comprehensive list of religious prisoners, which would better enable State to advocate for the release of specific prisoners held by nations across the globe.

Furthermore, we strongly recommend that the State Department follow USCIRF’s long-standing recommendation to designate Pakistan a country of particular concern (CPC), marking it as one of the world’s worst abusers of religious freedom. And we recommend that State continue designating Iran and Eritrea as CPCs for their abysmal religious freedom records.

As we mark International Religious Freedom Day, let us stand for the freedom of all people to practice their religion alone and in groups, in public and in private, and let the United States and the international community hold governments accountable for the protection of this inalienable human right.

Father Thomas J. Reese, S.J., ( is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom ( Daniel Mark ( serves as vice chairman and is an assistant professor of political science and Navy ROTC battalion professor at Villanova University.


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