In April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2018 Annual Report. Last week, the State Department released its 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Both reports cover the calendar year 2017. Here are five things to know about them.

1. The religious freedom reports are key inputs to US foreign policy.

Established as part of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the annual reports are the US government’s official accounts of religious freedom conditions worldwide. And they’re unique: no other country or international body produces reports like these. Their purpose is to ensure that advancing religious freedom is an integral part of US foreign policy.

The reports emanate from different bodies and have different emphases. The USCIRF report focuses on worldwide trends in religious freedom and countries where religious freedom violations are especially severe. The State Department’s annual report is broader and more in depth with detailed information on the state of religious freedom in every country of the world. Both reports are crucial tools for policymakers, academics, and non-governmental organizations.

2. Throughout 2017, religious freedom conditions worsened.

The 2018 USCIRF report opens with a grim observation: “Religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in countries across the globe in 2017.” The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists in China, the ongoing genocide and sectarian violence by government and nonstate actors in Iraq and Syria, and the Russian government’s increased oppression of religious minorities all contributed to this trend. The State Department’s own report on these and other countries is likewise sobering.

Both reports make clear that around the world innocent and vulnerable populations are increasingly targeted, harassed, brutalized, and killed for their faith.

3. At the same time, there’s growing recognition of the importance of religious freedom.

There are reasons to hope, too. The USCIRF notes that, while severe religious freedom violations continue, they are “less likely to go unnoticed.” And the United States is no longer alone in its efforts. Foreign government bodies, international organizations, and the media are more focused on international religious freedom than ever before.

There’s also a growing body of evidence to show that religious freedom is crucial to both stable, durable democracy and respect for human rights. A focus on religious freedom can enhance political and economic stability and combat extremism. It’s also a vehicle for empowering minorities and promoting other civil rights, like speech, press, and assembly.

This evidence presents US policymakers with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to do away with the impoverished view of religion generally, and religious freedom in particular, that dominates American foreign policy. The opportunity is to begin deploying religious freedom as a new diplomatic tool, making the case to foreign governments—based on evidence, not just rhetoric—that religious freedom is in their self-interest and crucial to long-term prosperity.

4. Ambassador Brownback is leading State Department efforts to prioritize religious freedom.

At the intersection of the two annual reports is Sam Brownback, the newly appointed Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The Ambassador leads the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and also serves as an ex officio member of the USCIRF. Brownback, a former US Senator and state governor, is the most prominent public figure to hold the position since its creation in 1998.

There are signs that Ambassador Brownback is having real influence in the corridors of Foggy Bottom. At last week’s presser accompanying the release of the State Department’s report, Secretary Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would be hosting its first ever “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” on July 25-26. While details and invites are forthcoming, both Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback said the Ministerial will bring together like-minded governments and the religious and NGO communities in an effort, as Ambassador Brownback put it, to “drive the issue of religious freedom more aggressively globally.”

For those who seek to elevate religious freedom in foreign policy discourse, the upcoming Ministerial is a heartening development.

5. Countries to watch in the coming year: North Korea and Indonesia.

Mindful of the grave human rights abuses that continue to plague religious minorities in Syria and Burma, here are two other countries to watch for in the coming year.

  • North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive regimes, has long been a “Country of Particular Concern” under the nomenclature of the IRFA. The government viciously persecutes people of faith, particularly Christians. With news that a US-North Korea diplomatic summit is back on, a key question for the Trump administration is whether human rights and religious freedom will be on the agenda. In an open letter last week, more than 50 foreign policy, human rights, and religious leaders urged President Trump to make religious freedom a priority at the summit, calling for the release of prisoners of conscience and free access to the country by Ambassador Brownback.
  • Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, and the USCIRF lists it as a “Tier 2” country of concern. Indonesia today stands on a razor’s edge. Recent domestic court rulings in favor of religious freedom contrast with growing social and government persecution of religious minorities, fueled in part by increased Saudi influence and radicalization. The opportunity for the Trump administration is to use its own economic, military, and diplomatic leverage in Indonesia to press for greater religious freedoms and combat extremism.

Ian Speir is a First Amendment attorney and a Senior Advisor for Human Rights at In Defense of Christians.

Photo Credit: Rohingya refugees entering Bangladesh on October 4, 2017. By Tasnim News Agency, via Wikimedia Commons.