Religious Freedom Severely Suppressed Globally, Report Says

Religious Freedom Severely Suppressed Globally, Report Says

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) annual report recommends that more than a dozen countries be placed on the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) based on their governments’ practice or toleration of severe violations of religious freedom.

These include 12 that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2023: Burma,  Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—as well as additional recommendations: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India and  Nigeria.

USCIRF released a statement back in 2021 calling it “unexplainable” and “appalling” that the State Department removed Nigeria as a CPC—a designation the country had received in 2020 under the previous State Department regime led by Trump appointee Mike Pompeo. USCIRF has now called for a congressional hearing after pushing year after year for both Nigeria and India to be designated as CPCs.

While USCIRF recommended Azerbaijan for the Special Watch List in 2023, which the State Department adopted, USCIRF said conditions in Azerbaijan have continued to deteriorate to meet the standards of abuse reserved for CPC designation. The current report marks the first time USCIRF has recommended the CPC designation for Azerbaijan.

USCIRF noted worsening religious freedom violations by the government of Azerbaijan in 2021 and 2022, and as the trend continued in 2023, USCIRF said Azerbaijan now meets International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) standards for CPC designation.

Under IRFA, the secretary of state—under authority delegated by the president—is required to annually review the status of religious freedom in every country in the world and designate which countries’ governments have engaged in or have tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Those countries are then specified as CPCs. If deemed necessary, the secretary of state can suggest sanctions or other policy options to address the serious violations of religious freedom committed by CPCs.

USCIRF’s recommendations for Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs) coincide with the State Department’s 2023 list. Noted as nonstate groups that engage in particularly severe IRFA violations that often includes violence, USCIRF recommends the State Department redesignate al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, Islamic State Sahel Province, Islamic State in West Africa Province—also referred to as ISIS-West Africa—and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).

The 2024 Annual Report also recommends 11 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) based on their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe violations of religious freedom. These include one that the State Department placed on that list in December 2023: Algeria—as well as 10 additional recommendations: Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie said that while he appreciates the U.S. government’s support of international religious freedom, the government can “further enhance efforts regarding religious freedom by implementing all of the recommendations in our 2024 Annual Report, and raising the names of victims persecuted for their faith each time the U.S. government engages with foreign governments.”

Among trends adversely impacting religious freedom globally are transnational repression, in which nations worked to limit religious freedom outside their borders; the continuation and consideration of laws restricting religious freedom, including laws against blasphemy, religious conversion, religious clothing and such traditions as ritual slaughter; attacks against religious sites in armed conflicts; risks to religious minorities during elections; the rise of antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred; various assaults on religious expression in Europe; and increasing concerns of religious freedom for the more than 35 million refugees forced from their homes in 2023.

“It is vital that the President, Secretary of State, and Congress implement the recommendations in this year’s report,” USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper said upon releasing the report May 1. “While 25 years has passed since USCIRF was created, it is more important now than ever to ensure that promoting freedom of religion or belief remains a key tenet of U.S. foreign policy.”

Photo: Tim Brakemeier / Alamy

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