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Religious Freedom Violations Go West

Annual watchdog report expands to Latin America, continues to cite China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia among 28 nations restricting minority faiths.
Religious Freedom Violations Go West
Image: STR / AFP via Getty Images
Riot police prevented Nicaraguan bishop Rolando Alvarez from leaving a church building in Matagalpa to preside at a mass as part of a “prayer crusade” on August 4, 2022 following the closure of several Catholic media outlets and allegations of harassment.

While longstanding offenders in Asia and the Middle East remain epicenters of persecution, Latin America and Europe occupy more space in an annual chronicle by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

For the first time, Cuba and Nicaragua are labeled Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), according to the independent watchdog. Its 2023 report also makes special mention of the religious rights of indigenous communities in Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. And France, Germany, and Ukraine are highlighted as examples where minority believers have suffered for their faith.

The report’s greatest emphasis, however, is monotonously familiar.

The commission recommends the US State Department relist Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as CPCs, in addition to Cuba and Nicaragua. Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam were recommended for additional designation.

Violations in these nations are “systematic, egregious, and ongoing.”

USCIRF chair Nury Turkel highlighted Iran in his opening remarks. The nation brutally represses its minority communities, he said, and this past year cracked down on protestors peacefully demonstrating against mandatory hijab laws.

Mahsa Amini, who died in custody, was the feature image of the 2023 report’s cover.

“USCIRF is disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries,” said Turkel. “We strongly urge the Biden administration to implement USCIRF’s recommendations.”

These include listening to the independent commission.

The report expressed “great disappointment” that India and Nigeria were not included in the State Department’s designations last December. Nigeria has been recommended since 2009, and was briefly designated a CPC by the Trump administration in 2020 before being removed by the Biden administration the following year. Syria has been recommended since 2014, India since 2020, and Afghanistan since 2022.

But USCIRF praised President Joe Biden for elevating the two new Latin American offenders, which the commission had labeled as Special Watch List (SWL) nations since 2004 and 2019, respectively.

This year, Sri Lanka was added for the first time as a SWL nation, with Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan additionally recommended to the State Department. Algeria and the Central African Republic were confirmed in their current SWL designation. (USCIRF takes no position on Comoros, a current SWL nation.)

Violations by these 28 nations collectively occupy 56 of the report’s 98 pages.

Image: Courtesy of USCIRF

Created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), USCIRF credited the Biden administration for continuing to prioritize religious freedom around the world.

In March 2022, the State Department imposed additional sanctions on Myanmar after determining the Southeast Asian nation committed genocide against the Muslim Rohingya people. In April, Biden signed into law the permanent reauthorization of the Global Magnitsky Act, providing government authority to sanction individuals for their human rights violations. And in September, the heightened admissions cap for refugees was maintained at 125,000, with special Temporary Protected Status given to Afghan nationals living in the US.

USCIRF asked the Biden administration to further strengthen such commitment.

One example given was waivers to sanctions. Though designated as CPCs, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan received no consequence for their violations against minority faiths.

USCIRF also asked Biden to appoint a religious freedom expert to the National Security Council, as demanded by the IRFA. The commission also requested an assessment of transnational repression, with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan listed as offending nations that monitor and restrict their citizens’ freedom abroad. And of Congress, it recommends passage of the 2022 bipartisan Stop Helping Adversaries Manipulate Everything (SHAME) Act, prohibiting lobbying on behalf of foreign adversaries.

China was specifically identified, the only listed nation receiving additional comment in its country section. All nine commissioners compared Beijing today with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, calling it “unthinkable” any reputable US firm could take the communist nation as a client.

Of Russia today, the atrocities in Ukraine have only made its religious freedom record worse. Local religious leaders who failed to back the invasion were forced to flee, while at least 15 Ukrainian clerics were kidnapped and 20 killed in the first six months of the war. And the United Nations has documented over 100 religious sites damaged in the fighting.

But the report did not spare Ukraine either, nor other allied European nations.

USCIRF spoke of “serious concern” that Kyiv might ban the Orthodox church ecclesially linked to Moscow, despite its pronouncement of spiritual autonomy. France and Switzerland banned the Muslim hijab in certain locations. And Germany, Spain, and Italy were cited for incidents of vandalism against minority faiths.

But of the Western Hemisphere, the report spoke of threats to the “holistic nature” of indigenous belief through the appropriation of ancestral lands and the extraction of natural resources. Yet traditional leaders were also guilty of violating the religious freedom of individuals in their communities when they exhibit faith commitments outside the majority structure.

At the state level, such violations demanded CPC status for Cuba and Nicaragua. In the former, conditions worsened considerably as the Caribbean island’s communist government sought to impose “total dominance” over religious life. And the latter’s designation derived from the Central American nation’s autocratic turn and increased repression against its Catholic church.

But not all violations come from state actors. USCIRF recommended the redesignation of seven Muslim groups—al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Islamic State in West Africa Province, and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin—as Entities of Particular Concern.

Yet Muslim nations were also praised along with countries in Europe and Latin America that made strides against antisemitism—efforts that comprised the only positive theme in this year’s report. USCIRF highlighted the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, and Bosnia, among others, for various steps taken to combat the otherwise alarming resurgence of antisemitism around the world.

But American leadership, however insufficiently, remains attentive.

“Throughout the past year, the US government continued to condemn abuses of religious freedom and hold perpetrators accountable,” said Abraham Cooper, USCIRF vice chair. “We urge Congress and the executive branch to implement the recommendations in USCIRF’s 2023 Annual Report, to further advance this universal, fundamental human right.”

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