April 2 (UPI) -- The United States called on governments around the world on Thursday to release millions of religious prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, told reporters that millions of religious minorities behind bars for practicing their religion should be released as the conditions in which they live are conducive to the spread of the infectious and deadly coronavirus.
Brownback specifically called on the authoritarian regimes of Iran, China and North Korea to do so as they hold the highest number of such prisoners.
"In this time of pandemic, religious prisoners should be released," he said. "We call on all governments around the world to do so. It's a good public health move for their nations and it's morally obviously the right thing to do."
Asked how many religious prisoners were there, Brownback replied, "unfortunately, we're talking millions, and that's just China."
China has been publicly accused of imprisoning some 1 million Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang under the pretext of counterterrorism, but the Asian nation where the coronavirus pandemic began has also imprisoned Protestants, Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and members of Falun Gong and other minority religions, he said.
In December, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation to allow for the president to impose sanctions against Chinese government officials for committing human rights crimes against their Uyghur populations.
Concerning Iran, Brownback said he was "pleased" that Tehran had furloughed some 100,000 prisoners of conscience to stymie the spread of COVID-19 among its prison populations but a number of high-profile religious prisoners remain behind bars and should be released.
He specifically called out Iran, he said, because "it's got hit big early" and has several notorious prisons known to be overcrowded and unsanitary. The Middle Eastern country was one of the first countries to report exponential spread of the virus among its population and has the seventh most number of cases with more than 50,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
North Korea, meanwhile, has said it doesn't have any infections -- A claim that many have disregarded. And Brownback said the State Department doesn't know how many prisoners it has in its infamous gulag system but that they risk "exceeding exposure" to COVID-19.
"Unfortunately, in some of these prison situations, too, they allow their prisoners to be kept in very crowded, unsanitary conditions and they die there, and that's just allowed by the government rather than being concerned at all for the health and safety of their citizens, even though they may not agree with their religious practices," he said.
The call follows Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December re-designating China, North Korea, Iran and six other nations as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act.
Brownback also specifically called for Vietnam, Russia and Eritrea to release their religious prisoners due to the high number they have placed behind bars.
He also called on governments to not blame religious minorities for causing the pandemic and instead work with them to ensure they are getting the resources they need.
"We've seen a situation in several countries where oftentimes a religious minority is excluded from the public health need and distribution in nations, and we're calling on all nations to distribute this at this time of pandemic to all communities regardless of religious affiliation or otherwise," he said.