By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
WASHINGTON (Worthy News) – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has warned of “worsening religious freedom conditions around the world,” including for Christians and other groups.
In its 2023 Annual Report, obtained by Worthy News, the USCIRF noted a significant “regression” in countries such as Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Russia.
The report by the bipartisan federal entity makes foreign policy recommendations to the U.S. Administration and Congress to “deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief abroad.”
The USCIRF recommended 17 countries to the State Department for designation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) as their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
These include 12 that the State Department already designated as CPCs in November 2022: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan—as well as five additional recommendations: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.
For the first time, the State Department designated Cuba and Nicaragua as CPCs in 2022, which could lead to U.S. sanctions.
“For eight of them, the State Department has imposed pre-existing sanctions as the consequence,” the USCIRF confirmed in an assessment seen by Worthy News.
However, for four countries, the U.S. State Department did not impose sanctions “based on other U.S. interests,” the USCIRF concluded without elaborating.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), adopted 25 years ago, the U.S. government is required to annually designate the worst religious rights violators as CPCs and to take “some action” in response.
The “USCIRF is disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries— especially in Iran, where authorities harassed, arrested, tortured, and sexually assaulted people peacefully protesting against mandatory hijab laws, alongside their continuing brutal repression of religious minority communities,” USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said. “We strongly urge the Biden administration to implement USCIRF’s recommendations—in particular, to designate the countries recommended as CPCs, and for the Special Watch List, or SWL. And to review U.S. policy toward the four CPC-designated countries for which waivers were issued on taking any action.”
The USCIRF and other religious rights groups have expressed especially disappointment that so far, the Biden administration refused to give CPC status to countries such as India and Nigeria, where they say thousands of Christians were attacked or killed for their faith in Christ.
The 2023 Annual Report also recommended 11 countries for placement on the State Department’s SWL based “on their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe religious freedom violations.”
These include two that the State Department placed on that list in November 2022: Algeria and Central African Republic (CAR)—and nine additional recommendations: Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
The USCIRF advises the State Department to add Sri Lanka to the SWL for the first time due to “its deteriorating religious freedom conditions in 2022.”
Among the 28 nations mentioned in the report, investigators noted the difficulties faced by Christians, such as “the persecution of Catholic Church leaders” under President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or human rights violations amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the report, USCIRF also expressed alarm over the continued enforcement of blasphemy provisions punishing individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines and efforts to enact stricter blasphemy legislation in several countries.
Pakistan is among the most notorious nations where Christians and others have been attacked, detained, and even killed for alleged blasphemy against Islam, according to Christian rights investigators.
“Blasphemy prosecutions demonstrate a blatant disregard for human rights and are often used to target members of religious communities and others who hold different or dissenting views,” said USCIRF Chair Turkel.
The USCIRF also asked the State Department to add seven militant and terror groups for redesignation as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) “for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.”
The State Department designated all seven of these groups as EPCs in November 2022: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP or ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
“Throughout the past year, the U.S. government continued to condemn abuses of religious freedom and hold perpetrators accountable through targeted sanctions and other tools. Moving forward, the United States should take additional steps to support freedom of religion or belief around the world,” added USCIRF Vice Chair Abraham Cooper.
“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,” he explained.
Turkel said the USCIRF also wants to “stress the importance of Congress acting to prohibit any person from receiving compensation for lobbying on behalf of foreign adversaries. Including those engaging in particularly severe violations of the right to freedom of religion of belief.”
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