Two weeks ago, the US State Department released its list of countries of particular concern (CPC)—a compilation of nations that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

The list contains the same names as last year: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan was added to a “special watch list” of governments or entities that don’t meet the requirements for the CPC designation yet still “engage in or tolerated” severe religious freedom violations.

The CPC list was about six weeks late, frustrating some religious freedom watchers, including the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is appointed by the federal government to make policy recommendations.

The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF)—established nearly 20 years ago under the Clinton administration—is officially tasked with annual reports on the state of religious freedom around the world.

The office is responsible for passing along a list of CPCs to the president each year, who would determine if the religious freedom violations were egregious enough to merit sanctions against particular nations. Almost right away—in 1999—that responsibility of naming the CPCs was shifted to the secretary of state.

But it didn’t always get done. A list came out promptly in 1999 and 2000, but was running two months late by 2001 and missed 2002 entirely, in the wake of 9/11 and the early years of the Iraq war. There was a list in 2003 and 2004, and the first sanctions appeared in 2005. The spotty performances continued: A list was issued ...

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