The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made some ground-breaking recommendations in its latest annual report, but the bipartisan watchdog made clear one reality is not new – the ability to exercise one’s faith continues to deteriorate.
In its 2017 report issued April 26, USCIRF set a precedent by calling for Russia to be classified as one of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty. The commission also urged the designation of three Muslim terrorist groups – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia – as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs), a new category for non-state organizations that use violence against people of faith.
Meanwhile, USCIRF reported the status of religious liberty globally “is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening – attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents and wholesale destruction of places of worship – that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated.”
Southern Baptist public policy leaders and the commission’s chairman urged the United States to work to protect and promote religious freedom.
The report “is yet another reminder how imperiled religious liberty is throughout the world,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in a written statement for Baptist Press (BP). “Conscience freedom is the most fundamental human right of all, but for millions of people across the globe, including many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, such freedom is consistently and violently attacked.”
Moore said he prays the United States “will continue to take the lead in global advocacy for religious liberty, and that most importantly, we as Christians would work and pray for conscience freedom for everyone and everywhere.”
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a Southern Baptist, said the commission’s report “shows the need to ensure that religious freedom is incorporated into the foreign policy of the United States.”
“Nations that oppress this basic human right are bound to violate other human rights, and in some regions, the evil of religious-based genocide rises up within its borders,” Lankford said in a written release. “As a nation, we cannot ensure that the fundamental right of religious freedom is protected for all people if we do not actively address the egregious violations being committed by nations, including our own allies, with whom the United States interacts.”
In his statement, Lankford again urged President Trump to nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom – an appeal the senator had made as recently as April 13 in a letter to the president. The post has remained vacant since Trump took office.
Thomas Reese, USCIRF’s chairman, said the commission calls in its report “for Congress and the administration to stress consistently the importance of religious freedom abroad, for everyone, everywhere, in public statements and public and private gatherings.”
USCIRF – in its findings that led to recommending for the first time Russia be added to the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) – described the country as the only state in its report “to have not only continually intensified its repression of religious freedom since USCIRF commenced monitoring it, but also to have expanded its repressive policies to the territory of a neighboring state [Crimea], by means of military invasion and occupation.”
Last year, Russia, on the mainland, “effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state,” according to the commission.
The first-time recommendation came less than a week after Russia’s Supreme Court banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country.
The ERLC’s Moore said he was glad to see USCIRF “recognize the threat the Russian government poses to the religious liberty of the Russian people. Many, including evangelical Russian citizens and missionaries, have warned of Russia’s Cold War against soul freedom for some time. We should pray and work for the day when Russia is free for everyone, including those who dissent from whatever is the state-approved religion.”
When the ruling against the Jehovah’s Witnesses was issued, USCIRF’s Reese said the decision “sadly reconfirms the disregard of the government for religious freedom in present-day Russia. Individual and community expressions of faith, and even private religious beliefs, are not safe from state-sponsored repression and coercion in Russia today.”
USCIRF recommended CPC redesignation for the 10 countries on the State Department list last year: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. CPC designation by the State Department is reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious liberty.
In addition to Russia, the commission urged five other countries for CPC designation: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam. USCIRF, however, removed Egypt and Iraq from this year’s list of CPC recommendations because of improvement in the countries.
Also, 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, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
The classification of three terrorist organizations – ISIS, the Taliban and al-Shabaab – as EPCs came after the December enactment of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act that requires the designation of non-state actors that severely violate religious liberty. “Entities that control territory and have significant political control within countries can be even more oppressive than governments in their attacks on religious freedom,” the commission said.
In its report, USCIRF called not only for the State Department to designate all its CPC recommendations, but it also included recommendations for:
- The president to name an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom as soon as possible and the Senate to confirm the nominee.
- Congressional delegations to examine during trips overseas religious liberty conditions for people of all faiths or none.
- The administration to prioritize the release of those imprisoned for their religious faith or actions.
- The administration to protect refugees and asylum seekers by continuing the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
The president has various means for inducing countries on the CPC list to change, including sanctions such as export and travel restrictions. He also has the authority to waive such penalties because of the “important national interest of the United States.”
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 2017 report, which is more than 220 pages in length, covered the 14 months from Jan. 1, 2016, through February of this year. The report is available at uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2017.USCIRFAnnualReport.pdf.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)