WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States is asking other nations to release what one ambassador called religious “prisoners of conscience” to prevent their infection with the coronavirus.
“We’re making the point that you should not want any of these prisoners of conscience to die of the COVID-19 virus while in prison and to have the responsibility on your hands,” said Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, during an April 17 conference call with reporters.
Prisons and jails in the United States and throughout the world have taken steps to release inmates either before their trials or before their sentences have been completed, as they take into account such factors as prison overcrowding and cramped cells preventing any kind of meaningful social distancing that has been advocated to stem the spread of the virus.
Brownback’s message was aimed specifically at religious prisoners, whatever the reason that authorities arrested or tried them for in the first place.
“We’re saying it’s good for you as a country. These people shouldn’t be locked up because of their faith,” Brownback said. “Fortunately, we have seen a number of countries that have begun to release their prisoners.”
He cited several nations — Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Syria and Tunisia — in general for their efforts in releasing religious prisoners, who are frequently members of religious minorities in their respective countries.
“The conditions of their release vary widely,” Brownback said, noting that some have won their freedom outright while others have been furloughed to house arrest. “We’re asking for complete release, but we’ll take what we can get,” he added in response to a question.
“This is good and we applaud these efforts by these countries to do that,” he said.
Brownback made specific mention of Iran, an early hotspot of COVID-19 cases, which has released about 100,000 prisoners — partly due to the coronavirus pandemic but also as part of the Iranian New Year observance of Nowruz, where it is customary to release prisoners.
Myanmar — which Brownback repeatedly called by its prior name, Burma, throughout the conference call — has freed about 200 Rohingya Muslim prisoners, attributable to both COVID-19 and a major festival in the nation. Azerbaijan, he noted, has released 176 inmates, religious activists among them, as a preventive health measure.
Russia, he said, released a Jehovah’s Witness activist. Cuba, which had arrested a Cuban Protestant pastor and his wife in late March, has freed the wife but still holds the pastor, the Rev. Ramon Rigal, in jail.
“I wanted to ask … that this momentum continue,” Brownback said, adding that a number of groups, among them the Alliance for International Religious Freedom, have called for these prisoners to be released given the situation. “We’re also really urging governments not to treat their religious minorities poorly in this COVID virus atmosphere or single them out for harsher treatment,” he said.
“We see some religious minorities being blamed for the COVID crisis,” Brownback added. “It’s difficult to imagine in some places, but it does happen. … We ask that the government allow them access to services. One of the techniques governments use (to coerce capitulation by religious minorities) is to deny access to public services.”
Brownback said the United States continues to call on China to release an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims from work camps in western China. He noted China also detains large numbers of house church leaders, Buddhists and members of Falun Gong.
He added he was aware of only one American being held prisoner: Pastor Bryan Nerren of Shelbyville, Tennessee, arrested in India last October for failing to declare about $45,000 he was carrying while attending religious conferences in India and Nepal.