Religious liberty continued to worsen globally in the last year, according to the annual report of a bipartisan, federal watchdog.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported May 2 governments around the world and non-government forces in locations such as Nigeria, Iraq and Syria were guilty of a “serious and sustained assault” on freedom of belief. The commission cited the rampant imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, the startling increase in refugees and the ongoing bigotry toward Jews and Muslims in Europe as examples of attacks on religious adherents.
“At best, at best, in most of the countries that we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve in any serious or demonstrable way. At worst, they’ve spiraled downward,” USCIRF Chairman Robert George told reporters in a telephone news conference.
The USCIRF report, said Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore, “details yet again how many millions of people around the world are daily deprived of the most fundamental human right.”
Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), urged the federal government and followers of Christ to act on behalf of the suffering.
“Soul freedom is everyone’s issue, for religious and non-religious people alike,” Moore said. “The United States must continue to take the lead in global advocacy for religious liberty, and Christians everywhere must continue to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.”
George called for the United States and other countries to include religious liberty in discussions of security, humanitarian and other issues on the international scene.
“[T]he right to religious freedom deserves a prominent seat at the table. It’s our hope that this seat will be provided in the coming years,” George said. “Religious freedom is far from the problem. The cause of advancing religious freedom is the solution.”
In its report, USCIRF again encouraged the State Department to designate more “countries of particular concern” (CPC), a label reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious liberty. Its recommendations came barely two weeks after the State Department announced its latest CPC list, which failed to include seven of the governments recommended in last year’s USCIRF report for the designation.
The commission again advised CPC designation for the seven – Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam – in this year’s report. USCIRF also urged CPC redesignation in its latest report for nine longstanding offenders: Burma; China; Eritrea; Iran; North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Turkmenistan; and Uzbekistan.
The State Department informed Congress April 14 that Secretary John Kerry had redesignated those nine governments for CPC status and had added a new one, Tajikistan. USCIRF had endorsed Tajikistan as a CPC last year, a recommendation it repeated in its new report.
Also May 2, 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. Those same countries inhabited Tier 2 last year as well.
Travis Wussow, director of international justice and religious freedom in the ERLC’s Middle East office, said the Southern Baptist entity is “sobered by the USCIRF report this year, which shows that conditions for religious minorities continue to deteriorate in many places around the world.” He also commended George and USCIRF for their work “to shine a spotlight on religious freedom” but expressed concerns in a May 2 blog post about the U.S. government’s commitment to religious liberty.
The State Department’s designation of CPCs – nearly two years after the most recent list – is “an important step,” but the United States “can be doing more,” Wussow wrote.
While persuasion and engagement are helpful, “inducement – another tool in the statecraft toolbox – is not being used in a meaningful way to advance religious liberty,” he said. “We urge the State Department to make the violation of religious liberty – a fact that affects hundreds of millions of people around the world every day – a key priority in American foreign policy.”
The president has various means for inducing countries on the CPC list to change, including sanctions such as export and travel restrictions. In the State Department’s latest CPC designations, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan received waivers from penalties because of the “important national interest of the United States.”
USCIRF’s new report urged the federal government not only to designate all its recommended countries as CPCs, but it also included calls for:
Waivers for CPCs to be limited to a definite time period and be subject to review before being renewed.
Support of a referral to the International Criminal Court to probe violations by the terroristic Islamic State against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria – acts the State Department classified in March as “genocide.”
A commitment to seeking to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees in America after “proper vetting and a prioritization based on vulnerability.”
Efforts to bring about the freedom of prisoners of conscience.
Most of USCIRF’s 17 CPC-recommended regimes and 10 Tier 2 countries “continue to jail people, at least sometimes, based on their religion or belief,” George told reporters.
Among religious freedom violations cited by USCIRF in its report:
Iran increasingly has imprisoned religious minority adherents – especially Christians, Sunni Muslims and Baha’is – since Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013, despite releasing Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini and others in the last year.
Russia has convicted, fined and detained many Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses especially under a religious extremism law.
The Islamic State’s murderous campaign has produced three million internally displaced people in Iraq and 7.5 million in Syria, as well as four million refugees from that Middle Eastern country, while more than one million Nigerians have abandoned their homes in the face of Boko Haram’s terrorist spree.
“Societal intolerance” of Jews and Muslims, including discriminatory policies and sometimes violence, has mounted in Western Europe.
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. George is professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.
The commission’s 2016 report, which is nearly 270 pages in length, covered the 13 months between Feb. 1, 2015, and Feb. 29 of this year. The report is available online at http://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/USCIRF%202016%20Annual%20Report.pdf.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)