Religious freedom advocates at the United States capitol on Thursday sent a message of solidarity to all those imprisoned or tortured for their religious beliefs.
“You are not alone. We are here with you, and we together will fight for your freedom,” Kristina Arriaga, a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated April 6 to two prisoners she sponsored as part of a forthcoming project on “prisoners of conscience.”
Under the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law in December by President Barack Obama, the commission was directed to make a list of persons throughout the world who have been tortured, killed, imprisoned, have disappeared, or were placed under house arrest because of their religious beliefs or advocacy.
The commission monitors religious freedom around the world and makes policy recommendations to the State Department.
On Thursday members announced that a “prisoners of conscience” list is being created, and that they will seek public input from non-government organizations on information about persons who could be included on the list. There will be forms provided for organizations to complete, Father Thomas Reese, chair of the commission, announced.
The list will be used for advocacy for the release of prisoners by foreign governments or non-state actors, Reese explained. “Public inattention can often lead to more persecution,” he said. Pictures of the prisoners and personal information can also help “put a face” to persecution around the world, he added.
“USCIRF strongly believes that it is essential to highlight the very personal dimensions and cruel costs of violations of freedom of religion or belief. These are human beings. We want to put a human face on these violations of religious freedom,” Reese said.
Included on the list are members of the “Baha’i Seven,” leaders of the Baha’i religious minority in Iran who have been imprisoned since 2008, and Maryam Naghash Zargaran, a Christian convert from Islam who worked at an orphanage in Iran and was convicted of “propagating against the Islamic regime and collusion intended to harm national security,” according to USCIRF.
Commissioners brought attention to various prisoners they themselves have sponsored. Reese sponsored Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, who has been detained since 2007.
He chose to sponsor the patriarch for ecumenical reasons, he explained, but also to draw attention to a little-known country with a poor human rights record.
“We’re hoping that this gives it a face, this gives it more attention, so that it’s simply not ignored by the media or by government officials or by anybody who can put the spotlight on the problems in Eritrea,” he explained. “For Christians, these are our brothers and sisters in Africa who are suffering because of their faith.”
Patriarch Antonios was elected patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 2003, but was forcibly removed by the government in 2007 after “he called for the release of Christian prisoners and refused to excommunicate 3,000 of his parishioners who opposed the government,” Reese explained.
The patriarch is “reportedly being denied medical care despite his suffering from severe diabetes,” he added.
“Arresting the Patriarch, that’s like arresting the Pope! And deposing him – Napoleon did that,” Reese said. “This is the level of abuse of freedom of religion in this country. And it’s not only him [the patriarch], it’s the other clergy that are being harassed and persecuted.”
Arriaga sponsored two members of the “Bahá’í Seven,” a group who were “tending to the spiritual and the social needs of the Bahá’í” before they were arrested by the Iranian government in 2008, labeled as heretics, convicted for “espionage and spreading propaganda against the regime,” and sentenced to at least 20 years in prison.
There have been over 200 Bahá’í leaders killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution, she said.
Arriaga sponsored two women of the seven – Mahwash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi. They shared a cell in a Tehran prison. One, Fariba, wrote a “whole book of poetry” smuggled out on “scraps of paper,” Arriaga said.
“Their name may sound foreign to all of us, but they want the same things we do, to live according to their deeply held convictions, to be with their families through the good times and the bad times, to be there for births and celebrations and weddings and deaths and funerals, but they can’t,” she said.
“Fariba and Mahvash, Your voice was indeed taken away. Until you are freed, we – all of us here – will lend you ours,” she added.