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The Secretary of State’s International Religious Freedom Awards

Graphic with photo of Farid Ahmed, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Farid Ahmed, New Zealand"

After his wife was killed in the 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks, Farid Ahmed has spread a message of forgiveness and peace at home and across the globe. Ahmed has traveled the world and written a book (Husna’s Story: My Wife, the Christchurch Massacre, and My Journey to Forgiveness). The book tells the story of Husna, his wife, and the selflessness and bravery with which she lived her life. As well as looking after her daughter and paraplegic husband, Husna was an important member of the community, helping women and running classes for children. Her last selfless act was going back into the mosque to look for her husband on the fateful day of the attacks, after she had already led other women and children to safety. Ahmed’s words and philosophy of forgiveness have resonated especially with other survivors of terrorist attacks, and he has been an important voice for the Muslim community, not only in New Zealand, but overseas. Ahmed organizes an annual Unity in Diversity Dinner, which brings together Muslim, interfaith, and non-faith communities in Christchurch, “to continue to spread the message of love, compassion, reconciliation, and peace as far as we can for a better world.”

Graphic with photo of Kola Alapinni, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Kola Alapinni, Nigeria"

Kola Alapinni is an international human rights lawyer who provides legal defense in multiple freedom of religion or belief cases and for challenging the constitutionality of Nigerian blasphemy laws. He is the leading defense counsel in two prominent blasphemy cases in Kano, Northern Nigeria. The first case involved Omar Farouq Bashir, a minor who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by a Kano Shari’a court in 2020 and subsequently released on appeal following Alapinni’s intervention. The second case concerns Muslim singer Yahaya Shariff Aminu who was sentenced to death by the same Kano court and whose appeal is pending with the Nigerian Supreme Court. In 1999 amid public pressures following the return of civilian rule in Nigeria, 12 northern states introduced a version of Shari’a law that prescribes the death penalty or lengthy prison sentences for blasphemy. When Omar Farouq Bashir and Yahaya Sharif-Aminu were arrested and charged with blasphemy in 2020, lawyers were reluctant to defend them in court because of the threat that violent mobs would attack or kill them and/or burn their homes. Kano has a history of mobs violently reacting to issues that relate to blasphemy. Alapinni and his team went to Kano and provided pro bono legal representation to Farouq and Sharif, despite considerable risk to themselves. The death sentence was overturned but Yahaya’s case was remitted to the Sharia Court for a retrial. Following a further appeal, the legal team is now at the Supreme Court of Nigeria seeking to free Yahaya and to challenge the Sharia Penal Code laws in Northern Nigeria.

Graphic with photo of Mirza Dinnayi, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Mirza Dinnayi, Iraq"

Mirza Dinnayi is a courageous Yezidi human rights defender and religious freedom activist who has dedicated his life to saving victims of terrorism and discrimination, evacuating women and children from territories controlled by ISIS, and providing survivors with free rehabilitation and support. In 2014, during the ISIS-led genocide against the Yezidi community, Dinnayi tirelessly worked with German sub-national governments to evacuate 1,100 Yezidi men, women, and children who had been abused and abducted by ISIS from the Sinjar area of northern Iraq. Thanks to Dinnayi’s efforts, these individuals were relocated to Germany to receive two years of medical care and therapy. Earlier, Dinnayi also cofounded Air Bridge Iraq (Luftbrücke Irak) to fly terrorism victims of all ethnicities and religions out of Iraq to Germany for medical and psychological treatment.

Graphic with photo of Peter Jacob, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Peter Jacob, Pakistan"

Peter Jacob is a tireless advocate for religious freedom and human rights who has spent more than 35 years fighting for the rights of Pakistan’s marginalized religious minority communities. Jacob has lectured, written columns and books, and carried out other forms of public and private advocacy on behalf of members of religious minority groups, seeking to secure their constitutionally guaranteed rights to equal treatment and freedom of religion. Jacob has called publicly for the repeal or reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which can carry punishments up to the death penalty and have been used extensively and abusively to imprison thousands of Pakistani Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Under Jacob’s leadership, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has compiled the only comprehensive database of blasphemy arrests and prosecutions in Pakistan, documenting more than 2,000 cases since 1987. CSJ has also catalogued vigilante violence and targeted killings of blasphemy suspects and religious minorities.

Graphic with photo of Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, Nicaragua"

Since 2019, Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro has documented the Nicaraguan government’s repression of the Catholic Church and religious communities. A lawyer by training, Molina worked as a researcher for the local non-profit Hagamos Democracia, where she investigated public corruption in the central and municipal governments in Nicaragua. Fearing imprisonment after suffering months of police harassment, Molina fled Nicaragua in June 2021. Since 2022, Molina’s reporting has focused on documenting police harassment and government-led violations of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against Catholic clergy in Nicaragua. Her comprehensive reports include detailed accounts of government bans on Catholic processions and other ceremonies, expulsion of Catholic clergy from the country, and the arbitrary arrest of Catholic priests, laity, and parishioners.

Graphic with photo of Tali Nates, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Tali Nates, South Africa"

Born to a family of Holocaust survivors, Tali Nates’s father and uncle were saved by Oskar Schindler. The rest of her family was murdered. As xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise in South Africa, Nates leverages her personal story and her position as the founder and director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center to inoculate South Africans—especially youth—from growing rhetoric that dehumanizes vulnerable groups. Nates uses case studies from the Holocaust, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and Apartheid in South Africa to teach youth to stand up to antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of othering. Nates also works to promote reconciliation and healing in post-conflict societies torn by religious and ethnic conflict and is contributing to a growing body of scholarly work on the African historical experience of trauma.

Graphic with photo of Lhadon Tethong, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Lhedon Tethong, People's Republic of China - Tibet"

Lhadon Tethong is the Co-Founder and Director of the Tibet Action Institute (TAI). She leads a team of technologists and human rights advocates in developing and advancing open-source communication technologies, nonviolent strategies, and innovative training programs for Tibetans and members of other groups facing repression by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Tethong and TAI’s work has shed light on how the PRC interferes with the right to freedom of religion or belief of Tibetan Buddhists. Recently, she presented recommendations for the PRC at the Universal Periodic Review 45 Pre-Session on behalf of many Tibetan civil society organizations, including religious freedom specific recommendations. Additionally, TAI has under Tethong’s leadership promoted respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Tibetans and strengthened Tibetan-led civil society groups with shared aims.

Graphic with photo of seven Orthodox priests, text reads: "the Secretary of State's International Religious Freedom Awards, Orthodox Priests, Lithuania"

Under pressure from Moscow, this group of nine Orthodox clergy were cast out of their churches because of their vocal opposition to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Five priests (Fathers Mockus, Seliavko, Ananiev, Dauparas, and Sungaila) and two deacons (Deacons Miniotas and Ovchinnikov) from the Moscow-aligned Orthodox Church in Lithuania, vigorously and publicly condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine and were defrocked. Two priests (Fathers Kakhta and Roi) from the Moscow-aligned Belarusian Orthodox Church, similarly condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine and fled to Lithuania after Lukashenka’s regime forced them to leave Belarus. They built a new religious community in Lithuania that welcomes Orthodox believers seeking to worship free from Moscow’s influence, including Lithuanians, Ukrainian war refugees, and exiles fleeing oppression in Belarus and Russia. Their bravery demonstrated the importance of faith separated from politics in the midst of war and dictatorship. This group now works to combat Russian disinformation and propaganda among Orthodox believers through their blog, which has become an information platform for religious leaders worldwide dismissed from Moscow-aligned Orthodox churches for their anti-war beliefs.

U.S. Department of State

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