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USCIRF: Persecution grows despite elevated awareness

WASHINGTON (BP) — While egregious acts of religious persecution are more likely to cause global protest 20 years after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, many countries are increasingly denying such freedoms, a federal watchdog commission reported today (April 25).

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted the dichotomy in releasing its 2018 Annual Report on 2017 religious freedom violations in 28 countries.

“Sadly, religious freedom conditions deteriorated in many countries in 2017, often due to increasing authoritarianism or under the guise of countering terrorism,” USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark said in releasing the report.

“Yet there is also reason for optimism 20 years after the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act,” Mark said. “The importance of this foundational right is appreciated more now than ever, and egregious violations are less likely to go unnoticed.”

October will mark the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which has never been fully implemented, USCIRF said, but was strengthened in 2016 by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (Frank Wolf Act) to address implementation concerns. USCIRF’s report encouraged the Trump administration to fully implement IRFA and related laws to speed and protect international religious freedom.

“In its second year, the Trump Administration should build on stated commitments to elevate religious freedom as a priority in our foreign policy and national security strategy by vigorously implementing IRFA, the Frank Wolf Act, and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act [of 2016] to pressure egregious violators,” Mark said. “USCIRF also urges the administration to prioritize seeking the release of religious prisoners of conscience abroad, and to work closely with international partners in efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief for all.”

USCIRF annually recommends countries of particular concern (CPCs), or Tier 1 countries, based on “systemic, ongoing, egregious” violations, as well as a Tier 2 “watch list” of countries that meet one or two of the criteria for CPCs. Since the Frank Wolf Act, Congress also has recommended entities of particular concern, EPCs, for non-state violators such as terrorist groups.

Genocide, killings, slavery, rape, imprisonment, forced displacement and forced conversions were among the most severe abuses reported in addition to childhood religious education bans, female marginalization, intimidation, harassment and property destruction.

“In addition to endangering individuals and communities, severe violations of religious freedom threaten the stability and security of nations and regions,” USCIRF said. “The freedom to follow one’s conscience in matters of religion or belief is essential to human dignity and human flourishing.”

The list of CPCs recommendations in 2018 are the Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam, in addition to 10 countries the U.S. Congress so designated in December 2017: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

USCIRF recommends 12 countries for a U.S. 2018 watch list: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia are listed as EPCs.

Acts of persecution noted in the USCIRF report include the unjust imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey; a genocidal campaign waged by ISIS against Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and Syria; in Nigeria, the government’s failure to prevent or punish religion-based violence involving Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen; in Pakistan, blasphemy laws and increased extremist activity against minority religious communities including Christians and others; and in Russia, banning Jehovah’s Witnesses and accusing peaceful religious groups of extremism.

The full report is accessible at uscirf.gov/reports-briefs/annual-report/2018-annual-report.