A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.
And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.
Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”
“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”
Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.
Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.
USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.
To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.
In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.
Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:
- 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
- 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
- 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
- 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
- 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
- 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
- 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
- 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
- 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan
Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”
Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?
The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.
Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?
First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.
One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.
It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.
We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.
What happens if you disagree about the designations?
The nine commissioners go through every country we look at. We may add a country, but by and large it has been the same countries for a number of years. We look at the evidence and have discussions. While there is vigorous discussion, there is generally very little disagreement or debate. The evidence is quite compelling.
With nine people of different political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, there are different views and options. By the statute that created us, those who disagree can present dissenting views at the end of each chapter. This happens, but not that much. There is an amazing amount of unity on the commission in how we view these countries.
Have you had any 5-4 votes about certain countries?
No. And with great confidence I can say we have not had any votes along partisan lines. Maybe the closest we had was three dissenting votes this year, about one country.
Concerning Nigeria and Syria, non-state actors have an outsized role in religious freedom violations. How do you determine if this should sanction the government?
In Nigeria, you have Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen engaged in attacks. Back to our definition, the government doesn’t have to engage in it, they can also tolerate it. If they tolerate it without providing evidence to suggest they are doing what they can to stop it, then they bear responsibility. That is the case in Nigeria.
Two years ago, President [Donald] Trump met with President [Muhammadu] Buhari and told him, “Look, you have to protect these citizens—these Christians—who are being attacked.” For six months, [Buhari] did, and we saw a decrease. But then it went back to the old ways of just ignoring it, and the intensity of the attacks escalated.
Syria is a bit like Afghanistan, which is on the SWL. You’ve got the Taliban, and other parties, and in their case with the government it is a combination of will and means. They don’t really have control of their country, and Syria is in a similar situation.
But we want to draw attention to Syria, because of the northeast region which still—though not as much because of Turkey—[holds] a lot of promise for the region with a self-governing entity that respected religious freedom and showed how it would work. You had people of different religious backgrounds working together in the same government. A lot of what is happening there is still driving the concern for Syria.
Nigeria qualifies because its government could do more, and it is not?
We look at religious freedom, and this issue alone. We try not to take into consideration other geopolitical factors. We don’t look at the US relationship with a country, or how our designation will affect this. We look at allies and foes alike. But we also look from a historical standpoint: What happens if we ignore religious intolerance and persecution?
We want to draw attention to Nigeria. It is the largest country in the African continent. We already see refugees fleeing from there. It could easily get out of hand and become a major problem.
Some people want to ignore the religious aspect, and say it is an issue of climate change and limited resources: the herdsmen with their cattle and their conflict with farmers. There is some element [of truth] to this. But you cannot ignore the religious component for a nation so evenly divided on religious background.
The Central African Republic was downgraded to SWL status following its peace treaty, even though militia attacks continue. Burkina Faso has suffered greatly from militia and Islamist groups that have been severe with their attacks on other religious communities. How did you sort through these issues to put one group here and another one there?
Burkina Faso is another country we have been looking at, I should have mentioned them. Partially because there was not enough verifiable information as we were looking at them. We have our resources, we have our sources, and we have to verify the information we have. I’m not saying it isn’t valid, but we have to make sure we get it right when we make our recommendations. The ramp-up time on some of these countries is a little longer when they are new to us.
What led you to upgrade India to CPC status?
A lot of evidence. That situation is steadily trending in a negative direction. The world’s quote-unquote largest democracy. We’ve not been able to get into the country. They will not allow us in. But we have enough people there.
We had a hearing not specifically about India, but of those nations that are denying citizenship. India is very much involved in this, passing legislation that effects a large portion of Muslims that for all practical purposes should be considered citizens, but are denied that. There is a growing trend that suggests India is moving pretty rapidly in the wrong direction.
You included Russia and Vietnam last year for CPC designation, but the State Department did not include them on its list. How do you understand why?
This is not new; it has long been the case. We focus on one issue and one issue alone—religious freedom—and you can argue this is a luxury. The State Department has to look through a multitude of angles. I appreciate that and understand that. But it is not what we are called to do. We give them our best recommendation based on what we know, and they take this into the mix and make their decision.
You note in your report that the International Religious Freedom Act requires the executive branch to take action, acknowledging that waivers are often issued. Why would following the law be better policy than behind-the-scenes negotiation, to solve problems?
Part of it is so that it can become a negotiating gambit in their discussions with particular countries. For example, Saudi Arabia has been on our list, partly because of their textbooks. We have been told for years that they are in a process of revision, and boy has it been a long process.
They should take a cue from Sudan, which jumped in on this with both feet and are revamping the curriculum for the whole country, and they don’t have any money compared to Saudi Arabia.
We keep raising the issue, and for various reasons the State Department keeps issuing waivers. We just keep putting it back before them. We’ve seen some progress from Saudi Arabia in some areas—and this is just one country to use as an example.
One area of improvement for the [Trump] administration has been its use of sanctions against those who violate religious freedom. Since the Global Magnitsky Act was established in 2017, prior to this year I think there were 8 people sanctioned. I think this year alone there have been 8 more. They are beginning to use the tools they have much more aggressively.
Sudan and Uzbekistan have been downgraded in your recommendations. There has been progress made, but how does this fit into the criteria of “systematic, ongoing, and egregious”?
I’m most familiar with Sudan, I was just there in February with the prime minister [Abdalla Hamdok]. I’m frankly impressed with what they are trying to do.
Shortly after the transitional government went into place, they repealed the public order law used to apply Islamic law to oppress women. They have disbanded what were called “church councils” used to take church property. They have told us repeatedly that they are working to repeal the apostasy and blasphemy laws. That would be such a significant step for a country that is predominantly Muslim, and still wants to operate with Islam as a foundation of the government.
We think they should be on the SWL because they are still in this transition process—not out of the woods yet, so to speak. But it is quite impressive what they have been able to do.
Sudan, Uzbekistan, and other nations have been eager to engage us to try to get to a good place on religious freedom. This is in large part because this present administration has put a high priority on religious freedom. Word is circulating around the world, so many countries want to improve their standing.
What other countries might you mention?
Egypt is one. We’re seeing progress and positive trends there. The challenge is still the outlying rural areas where, in my view, the rule of law is fragile. I was there for the opening of the cathedral and mosque outside of Cairo. No question this is the direction they’re going; but they still have a ways to go.
Bahrain has been engaged with us; they are working to move in this direction. I have been to the United Arab Emirates; they are trying to be an influencer in the Middle East.
Turkey is a country that has not been engaging the Trump administration on the issue of religious freedom. What is keeping it from a CPC designation?
This is one there was discussion about. We’re watching it very closely. It is hard to say, but if the current negative trends were to accelerate, they could find themselves on the CPC list.
Is the condition of religious freedom in the world getting better or worse? Where do you see hope for the future?
I am reluctant to say better or worse. Or are we getting more focused, so we see the problems more clearly? The awareness is growing, and therefore it seems more pronounced.
I would say it is certainly at a historical high in modern times. Is it getting better? I think we are seeing pockets of progress. I am very hopeful for Sudan, that it can provide a way forward for other countries that have been under tyrannical Islamist regimes.
Northeast Syria provided great promise. I was very hopeful for what was happening there, and it was done without outside intervention. They were thrust together because of ISIS, and learned to work together for survival. But now with Turkey moving into the area, I don’t know what the outcome will be.
There are pockets of encouraging developments. More people are talking about it. We have hosted two ministerials to advance religious freedom. Twenty-seven countries have joined the International Religious Freedom Alliance. More is being done than has been done in a long time.
Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced. But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.
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