WASHINGTON (BP) – The U.S. State Department should add Nigeria, Afghanistan, India, Syria and Vietnam to its list of countries with “particularly severe” religious freedom violations, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said May 1 in releasing its 2023 Annual Report.
The five countries should be deemed “countries of particular concern (CPCs),” indicating egregious, systemic and ongoing violations of religious freedom and belief, USCIRF said, citing Nigeria as the most dangerous country for Christians, condemning Afghanistan’s harsh Sharia law that persecutes religious minorities, women and others; egregious human rights abuses in Syria’s civil war, and continually worsening conditions in India and Vietnam.
Algeria and the Central African Republic (CAR) should be added to the State Department’s special watch list (SWL) of countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom, USCIRF said.
The five CPC countries would join 12 others the State Department named as CPCs in 2022 including Iran, where the government has tortured children and adults in response to peaceful protests that erupted in September 2022 after Mahsa Amini died in police custody for not wearing a hijab, mandatory attire for women in Iran.
“While religious freedom conditions in Iran were extremely poor even before protests began in September 2022,” USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said in releasing the report, “they have deteriorated considerably due to the government’s severe brutality against Iranians peacefully asserting their religious freedom. Iran’s security forces have shot and killed peaceful protestors, detained and tortured others, and engaged in a systematic campaign of sexual and gender-based violence against not only women and men, but boys and girls as well.”
Turkel commended the Biden Administration for imposing targeted sanctions on Iranian officials for religious freedom violations and supporting United Nations fact-finding missions to Iran, but deemed the U.S. steps insufficient.
“In this year’s annual report,” Turkel said, “USCIRF recommends the U.S. government lend its full support to a U.N. Security Council’s referral of the issue of Iran to the U.N. criminal court for investigation of crimes against humanity against those asserting freedom of religion or belief.”
USCIRF’s 2023 report marks the second consecutive year the commission has recommended the State Department return Nigeria to the list of CPCs.
“The State Department had rightly designated Nigeria as a CPC in 2020,” Turkel said, “an action USCIRF has recommended since 2009. But in 2021, and again in 2022, the State Department chose not to designate Nigeria as a CPC.”
The exclusion indicates the State Department deems Nigeria, Turkel said, as committing “no severe religious freedom violations as defined by International Religious Freedom Act of 1993. Based on the State Department’s own reporting, we know this is simply not true. Central government’s failure, state government’s repression, and religiously motivated violence by non-state actors have turned parts of Nigeria into a hotbed of persecution, particularly in the North.”
In addition to Iran, countries the State Department designated as CPCs on its latest list should be retained, USCIRF said, namely Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
In addition to adding Algeria and the CAR to the special watch list, the State Department should retain on the list Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Uzbekistan, USCIRF said.
USCIRF’s annual report assesses religious freedom violations and progress in 28 countries in the 2022 calendar year and recommends U.S. policy to address violations and shortfalls. In addition to CPCs and the special watch list, the commission recommends nonstate actors for designation as Entities of Particular Concern (EPC) guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Such entities are violent, non-sovereign groups with “significant political power and territorial control.”
USCIRF recommended no new entities this year, other than the return of currently designated EPCs. Those are al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Houthis, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP also referred to as ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
USCIRF presents its list as a sampling of international persecution that is not exhaustive of the international scene. The report also analyzes the U.S. government’s implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act and recommends administrative policy and congressional improvements.
Among policy recommendations for the Biden Administration, USCIRF urges the appointment of an individual from the National Security Council as special adviser to the U.S. president on international religious freedom, with sufficient funding and staff; to increasingly invoke the Global Magnitsky Act and other avenues to impose asset freezes and or visa bans on individual violators; and to fully implement the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 in response to atrocities including those against religious communities.
The U.S. should tackle religious freedom violations by strengthening use of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in admitting refugees here, address “longstanding flaws” in the treatment of asylum seekers in the Expedited Removal process and appoint a high-level official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help reform the Expedited Removal process.
USCIRF urged Congress to reintroduce and pass the bipartisan Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything (SHAME) Act, aimed at prohibiting compensation for lobbying on behalf of foreign adversaries, including those engaging in particularly severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief; and to permanently reauthorize USCIRF as in independent investigative arm.
USCIRF’s full report is available here.