Religious liberty conditions failed to improve on the world stage in a year marked by barbarous campaigns of extremist groups in some regions, a United States watchdog panel said April 30 in its annual report.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the State Department to add eight more countries to its list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty. That list – consisting of what is known as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) – already has nine members.
In the 16th annual report since its establishment, the bipartisan commission did not have good news for religious liberty advocates.
“Across the world, we see little evidence that religious freedom conditions have improved in any serious or tangible way,” USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett told reporters in an April 30 telephone news conference.
While there were exceptions globally, she said, “[W]hen we look at the 16 countries we recommended last year for CPC status, not one of them has significantly improved its record. And in a number of them, from China to Syria, we see signs of further deterioration.”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said USCIRF’s report “shouldn’t be kept in the halls of Congress, the White House and the State Department.”
“This report ought to prompt churches also to see a call to action,” he said. “We should be praying fervently for justice and liberty for the persecuted around the world, including the many who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we ought to be raising up a generation of Christians with consciences shaped to work for soul freedom for everyone, not just for Christians and not just for Americans.”
Non-state actors – extremist religious groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria – “played a huge role in fueling some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” Swett said.
The early portion of USCIRF’s report focused on the upheaval resulting in five countries from the violent operations of non-state actors:
In Iraq, 2 million people – including Christians, Yazidis and moderate Muslims – were displaced within the country in 2014 during the reign of terror by ISIS. In a first for the commission, its report recommended the U.S. government call on the United Nations Security Council to refer ISIS to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.
In Syria, ISIS helped increase the displacement to more than 6.5 million of the pre-civil war population internally and more than 3.3 million refugees in other countries.
In Nigeria, more than 1 million have been displaced from their homes because of Boko Haram.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), a million or more people have fled their homes during fighting between Muslims and Christians, and nearly all the country’s mosques have been destroyed.
In Burma, internal displacement since 2012 has grown to 140,000 Rohingya Muslims and at least 100,000 Kachin Christians as a result of violence by Buddhist extremists. Nearly 90 percent of Burma’s population is Buddhist.
In its report, USCIRF recommended the addition of CAR to the State Department’s CPC list for the first time. The other seven countries the advisory panel urged the State Department to add were Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam. All seven were CPC recommendations by the commission last year.
USCIRF called on the State Department to keep the following nine countries on the CPC list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The State Department is expected to announce its CPC list later this year. It released its most recent list of severe violators of religious freedom in July 2014, nearly three years after its previous designations.
Also April 30, USCIRF placed 10 countries on Tier 2, once known as its “watch list.” Tier 2 countries, which are on the threshold of recommendation for CPC or Tier 1 designation, are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.
Among CPC countries where the government oppresses religious adherents, USCIRF reported:
In China, a “new wave of persecution” of Christians swept the country in 2014 that some have described as “the most egregious and persistent” since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. It included the destruction or removal of at least 400 church buildings or crosses on such buildings.
In Iran, religious liberty conditions deteriorated further in 2014, especially for Christian converts, Bahai’s and Sunni Muslims.
In North Korea, Christians continued to experience the harshest persecution in a country where religion is prohibited unless operated by the government.
USCIRF’s report urged the United States and other countries to take the following steps to aid countries afflicted by religious extremism: 1) continue to provide emergency help; 2) give full recognition to religious liberty; and 3) provide legal protections to both the majority and minorities and address corruption and “unequal sharing” of resources.
“All nations should care about abuses beyond their borders not only for humanitarian reasons but because what goes on in other nations rarely remains there,” according to the report.
Swett told reporters, “Standing for religious freedom is not just a moral imperative but a practical necessity for any country seeking to protect its security and that of its citizens. That includes America. Clearly, religious freedom deserves a permanent seat at the table of our country’s foreign policy.”
The commission’s recommendations to the U.S. government included:
Extension by Congress of the CPC designation to include non-state actors such as ISIS.
Increased efforts by the State Department to prevent entry into the United States of foreign officials responsible for religious liberty violations.
Placement by the secretary of state of the ambassador at large for religious freedom over an inter-bureau working group.
Annual oversight hearings by Congress on implementation of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created USCIRF.
Evidence exists that Congress and the White House are becoming more sensitive to the centrality of religious liberty in foreign policy, Swett told reporters. Her primary hope is the report “helps spur our political leaders in every branch of our government to elevate the status and importance of religious freedom as they approach the many challenges that they face,” Swett said.
When asked by a reporter about the persecution of Christians, Swett said “corrections have been made” to a White House misstep in the past when the religious nature of an attack wasn’t highlighted. “My own view is that there is enormous sensitivity in our government to the threats facing persecuted Christian communities,” she said.
USCIRF – which is made up of nine commissioners selected by the president and congressional leaders – tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.
The commission’s 2015 report, which is more than 230 pages in length, covered the 12 months between Jan. 31, 2014, and Jan. 31 of this year. The report is available online at uscirf.gov.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)