The United States added a single country to its list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom but designated for the first time nine non-state organizations for their violence against people of faith.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Dec. 11 he had added Pakistan to the list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved under federal law for governments that have committed or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The CPC designations – actually made Nov. 28 by Pompeo – also included nine of the countries named in December 2017 by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Pompeo removed Uzbekistan from the CPC list, placing it on a “special watch list” with Russia and Comoros, a group of islands off the east coast of Africa, for countries that have engaged in or permitted “severe violations” of religious liberty.
The “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) named by Pompeo were all Islamic terrorist groups: al-Nusra Front in Syria; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Qaeda; al-Shabab in East Africa; Boko Haram in West Africa; the Houthis in Yemen; Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Taliban. It was the inaugural use of the EPC classification established by Congress in 2016.
In other global religious freedom developments:
– President Trump signed into law Dec. 11 the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, which will provide humanitarian aid to Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities terrorized by ISIS in the two Middle East countries. It also will support criminal investigations and prosecutions of the terrorists responsible for genocidal acts and crimes against humanity.
– A delegation from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) attended meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, to advocate for religious freedom regarding North Korea – a perennial member of the CPC list – with members of the United Nations.
ERLC President Russell Moore commended the work that went into one country being removed from the CPC list.
“When a country is placed on a list of ‘countries of particular concern,’ the hope is that these countries would reform and progress beyond that negative designation,” Moore said in written comments for Baptist Press. “Unfortunately, such rarely happens. Therefore, we have cause for great celebration in Uzbekistan doing just that this year.
“There is no doubt that a significant reason for this is Ambassador Sam Brownback’s tireless and careful work toward broad reforms in that country,” he said. “My prayer is that his good work will continue to see such visible fruitfulness and that religious freedom would advance across the world.”
In announcing the designations, Pompeo said in a written statement, “In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs. The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression.”
While Pompeo did not comment on the addition of Pakistan, Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, pointed to the country’s laws criminalizing blasphemy as one of the reasons for its inclusion on the CPC list. In a briefing with reporters, Brownback also cited Pakistan’s failure “to hold accountable perpetrators of killings and violence against members of religious minorities targeted on account of their religious beliefs or affiliations.”
Asia Bibi – a Christian mother in Pakistan who had been charged with blasphemy – was acquitted and released from death row in October. But she has been blocked from leaving the country after mobs protested and called for her execution.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – a bipartisan, nine-member panel that researches and makes recommendations on religious liberty conditions overseas – commended Pompeo’s action on Pakistan, a Central Asian country that is 95 percent Muslim.
“We are gratified that, after years of reporting systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom in Pakistan, the State Department has finally added that country to the list of the world’s worst violators,” USCIRF Chairman Tenzin Dorjee said in a written statement.
USCIRF had urged in its April report the addition of not only Pakistan but Russia, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam to the CPC list. It also recommended Uzbekistan remain on the list.
Pompeo surpassed USCIRF’s EPC recommendations, however. USCIRF called for EPC designation for ISIS, al-Shabab and the Taliban.
Under federal law, the president has various means for penalizing countries on the CPC list. In the latest designations, sanctions were placed on Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan, Brownback told reporters. Sanctions were waived, however, for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, he said.
Religious liberty advocates applauded Trump’s action to enact the Iraq-Syria genocide law.
“Through this bill we send the message that those responsible for these crimes, including genocide, will not escape justice,” USCIRF Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga said in written remarks.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., lead sponsor of the bill, said in a written release the United States “must move quickly to implement this. Archbishop Warda, the head of [the] Chaldean Catholic Church there, told me that ‘Christians in Iraq are still at the brink of extinction. [This law] is vital to our survival … implementation must be full and fast. Otherwise, the help it provides will be too late for us.’”
The ERLC’s Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy, and Andrew Walker, director of research, met with ambassadors and diplomats in Geneva regarding religious freedom in North Korea. The SBC entity, which has special consultative status with the U.N., is urging member states to consider religious freedom in making human rights recommendations to officials of the regime, which is undergoing its Universal Periodic Review by the U.N., according to the ERLC.