Russia’s ongoing crackdown on religious minorities, foreign missionaries, and evangelists has earned it a spot among the worst countries in the world for religious freedom.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which flags religious freedom violators for the State Department, listed the former Soviet state among six new Tier 1 “countries of particular concern” (CPC) in its latest annual report, released Wednesday.
It is the first time in the commission’s almost 20-year history that Russia has made the list. A total of 16 countries currently hold the CPC designation, and another dozen are being reviewed as Tier 2.
Russia is the only country whose repression of religious freedom has both intensified and expanded into a neighboring state by means of military occupation since USCIRF began monitoring it, officials said. The report dedicated seven pages to its problematic policies, from the “persecution of religious minorities in the occupied areas of Crimea and Donbas” to recent moves against non-Orthodox Christians in its heartland.
Last week, Russia’s Supreme Court officially banned Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide after several years of blacklisting their materials and shutting down regional centers.
“The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to religious freedom is being eliminated through a flawed application of this law,” which labels the pacifist organization an extremist group, said Thomas Reese, USCIRF chair and a Catholic priest. The commission recommended the US government urge Russia to amend the law to add criteria preventing it from being used against peaceful groups.
Additionally, the commission wants to see more pressure put on Russian officials over repressive application of other laws, including its “foreign agents” law—which restricts missionary activity—and a 2016 anti-evangelism regulation (known as the “Yarovaya law”)—which keeps non-Orthodox Russians from sharing their faith outside official church buildings.
Russian evangelicals, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, continue to push back against the restrictions, which have resulted in arrests, fines, and confiscated materials for Protestants found guilty. They have risked punishment to continue to spread the gospel.
“They say, ‘If it will come to it, it’s not going to stop us from worshiping and sharing our faith,’” Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia and a former Moscow church planter, told CT last year. “The Great Commission isn’t just for a time of freedom.”
The USCIRF report states that religious freedom violations are getting more common and more severe. Globally, the state of religious freedom has worsened enough that the commission worries about observers becoming “numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
Beyond Russia, the commission called out several issues of major concern:
- ISIS’ continued genocide and sectarian violence in the Middle East
- Threat of violence toward Coptic Christians in Egypt
- Blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan
The full list of Tier 1 countries of particular concern includes: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with the addition of Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam this year.