US Religious Freedom report: These top 5 American allies are criticised for persecution

Now in its 19th year of publication, the US State Department's annual report on religious freedom is an encyclopedic document.

Analysing more than 190 countries and territories, it surveys the global status of freedom of religion and belief and this year's report is the first published under Donald Trump's administration. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reserved his strongest condemnation in both the report and his opening remarks for ISIS, brazenly using the G-word that will win him praise from religious persecution campaigners concerned about Christians' treatment in the Middle East.

ReutersUS Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presented the report in person after criticism he had not turned up at the launch of the State Department's report into global human rights.

'ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled. ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing,' he said in his preface.

'The protection of these groups – and others who are targets of violent extremism – remains a human rights priority for the Trump Administration.'

But more problematic to condemn are those countries Trump has explicitly sought to woo in his opening months as President.

So here are five countries Trump has looked to build relations with and what the report says about their religious freedom record:

Saudi Arabia

ReutersSaudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) presents U.S. President Donald Trump with the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The Gulf state was the destination of Trump's first state visit, in which he famously openped a new global centre for combating extremist ideology by placing his hand on a glowing orb alongside King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

Despite its overt role in funding terrorism and fuelling the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves make it a vital ally for the US in the Middle East.

But Tillerson and the US religious freedom report pull no punches.

Citing criminal penalties for apostasy, atheism, blasphemy, and insulting the Saudi state's interpretation of Islam, as well as attacks and discrimination targeting Shi'ite Muslims, Tillerson said Saudi Arabia ought to 'embrace greater degrees of religious freedom for all of its citizens'.


ReutersU.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.

In a highly symbolic move Trump made Israel another of the countries he visited on his first foreign trip, sealing his support for Israel after he hinted he could support moving the US embassy from the official capital of Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem.

Although very careful not to overtly criticise Israel and its policies, the report notes that Israeli authorities sometimes restrict Muslim access to the highly sacred Temple Mount citing security concerns and non-Muslim prayer is also forbidden at the al-Aqsa mosque.

'Relations among religious and ethnic groups, including between Muslims and Christians, Arabs and non-Arabs, and secular and religious Jews, continued to be strained,' the report says.

'Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations.'


ReutersUS President Donald Trump (2nd L), flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (3rd R), Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (2nd R) and National Security advisor H.R. McMaster (R) meets with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (L) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 21, 2017.

Bahrain and the US are long-term allies although relations have been strained since the the de facto absolute monarchy responded to the Arab Spring uprising by crushing peaceful opposition and free speech even more forcefully.

Similarly to Saudi Arabia, the US is often willing to look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses because it is a 'critical security partner' and hosts the US Fifth Fleet.

But Tillerson singled out the Gulf Arab state saying it 'must stop discriminating against the Shia communities'.

Bahrain's foreign ministry hit back saying his remarks were 'inappropriate' and showed a 'deep misunderstanding of the facts'.

It called on the State Department to discuss such matters directly with the kingdom before making statements.

'The history of the Kingdom of Bahrain is characterised by coexistence and religious harmony,' the ministry said in a statement.


ReutersEgyptian Christians react during the funeral of victims killed in the bombing at Cairo's Coptic cathedral, at the Mokattam Cemetery in Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 12, 2016.

'I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President el-Sisi,' Trump said when he welcomed Egypt's leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the White House in April.

Despite el-Sisi's questionable human rights record, Trump has embraced him as demonstrated by the $1.3bn in aid given to Egypt.

But the State Department's report criticises where Trump has not.

'Rights advocates said the government was sometimes slow in responding to sectarian violence, especially outside of major cities,' the report states.

'Some government entities continued to use anti-Shia rhetoric, and the government regularly failed to condemn anti-Semitic commentary. Christians reported discrimination by authorities at local levels, especially in rural areas,' it goes on.

'Religious minorities continued to face significant threats of terrorist attacks and sectarian violence,' it adds, detailing several attacks, primarily against Christians, in the last year.


ReutersDonald Trump and Vladimir Putin meets at the G20 Summit.

Trump's relations with Russia are at the forefront of the world's attention with allegations of Kremlin interference in the US election.

Relations between Trump and Putin seem to rollercoaster between uncomfortably close to equally uncomfortably hostile.

But when it comes to religious freedom, the US State Department condemns of Russia's progress.

'Government authorities continued to detain and fine members of minority religious groups and minority religious organizations for alleged extremism. The government also fined and issued deportation orders for a number of U.S. citizens for engaging in religious activity,' the report says.

'According to representatives of religious minorities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Yarovaya legislation's [anti-evangelism laws] broad definition of missionary activity meant authorities could prosecute individuals for disseminating religious materials or preaching in addition to proselytizing.'

It adds: 'There were physical assaults on Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, Muslims, and Jews, as well as other attacks on individuals, which may have been based on both their ethnicity and religion.'