In its 15th annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommends that the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list, which tracks and monitors countries with severe violations of religious freedoms, be doubled in size, expanding to include Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Tajikistan. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan watchdog panel created by Congress to review conditions of religious freedoms internationally by analyzing the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom and to make policy recommendations “[g]rounded in and informed by the American experience.”
Since 2006, eight countries have been designated on the United States State Department list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs). The list documents those countries worldwide that engage in clear violations of religious freedoms, and it’s unchanged roster for the past eight years has named Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. Each of these countries undoubtedly engages in systemic and extreme suppression of religious freedoms, but they are far from the only places to display such a record.
A number of factors influence the appointment of new nations to the CPC list, which defines “severe violations of religious freedom to mean systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as:
a) Torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment;
b) Prolonged detention without charges;
c) Causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or
d) Other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.
Nations designated as CPC may be subject to further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States. For this reason, the recommendations made by the USCIRF are delivered to the President and the Secretary of State, who have ultimate jurisdiction controlling whether new states are added to the list.
Over the last 10 years, numerous nations have seen a worsening of their religious freedom climate. Pakistan, according to the USCIRF, “represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as “countries of particular concern.” In the past year, conditions hit an all-time low due to chronic sectarian violence targeting mostly Shi’a Muslims but also Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus.
In Turkmenistan, religious freedom violations persist despite a few limited reforms in 2007. Police raids and harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups continue. The repressive 2003 religion law remains in force, causing major difficulties for all religious groups.
Although USCIRF recommended Vietnam for CPC designation in 2004 and 2005, it withdrew the recommendation in 2006 because of progress toward fulfilling a bilateral agreement to release prisoners, banning forced renunciations of faith, and expanding legal protections for religious groups. However, Vietnam continues to imprison individuals for religious activity or religious freedom advocacy, and it uses a specialized religious police force and vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhist, Protestant, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities and to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism via discrimination, violence, and forced renunciations of their faith.
Egypt showed some progress during a turbulent political transition, but the Morsi-era government and the interim government failed to protect religious minorities, particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians, from violence. Discriminatory and repressive laws and policies that restrict freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief remain in place under the new constitution. For example, Egyptian courts continue to prosecute, convict, and imprison Egyptian citizens for blasphemy.
In the past year, the government of Iraq failed to stem egregious violence by non-state actors against Iraqi civilians, including attacks targeting religious pilgrims and worshipers, religious sites, and leaders, as well as individuals for their actual or assumed religious identity. The Iraqi government took actions that increased, rather than reduced, Sunni-Shi’a tensions stemming from the Syrian crisis, threatening the country’s already fragile stability and further exacerbating the poor religious freedom environment. Especially concerning is the draft personal status law that would separately apply to Shi’a Iraqis, which risks further hardening the sectarian divide.
Religious freedom in Syria has been deteriorating dramatically throughout the ongoing conflict between Assad’s regime and anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, subjecting the Syrian people to egregious violations of human rights, including freedom of religion or belief. Government forces and affiliated militias have perpetrated religiously-motivated attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians and members of religious minority communities, and have increased sectarian divides through rhetoric and religiously-motivated violence.
Recurring sectarian violence, attacks and threats against Christians by Boko Haram continue to test Nigeria’s democracy, and the misuse of religion by politicians, religious leaders, and others. Religion and religious identity intertwine with ethnic, political, economic, and social controversies to strain already tense Christian-Muslim relations. While the Nigerian government does not engage in religious persecution, it tolerates severe violations through its failure to bring to justice those responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, or to prevent or contain sectarian violence.
Systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom continue in Tajikistan. The government suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control, particularly the activities of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government also imprisons individuals on unproven criminal allegations linked to Islamic religious activity and affiliation. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned since 2007. There are no legal provisions on conscientious objection to military service.
All of these nations have been recommended for inclusion in previous years, and the State Department, without comment, continually fails to add them to the official CPC list. Explanations of this course of action include political tensions and the vacancy (since last October) of the office of Ambassador-at-large for religious freedoms. In addition to these countries, USCIRF also recommended the inclusion of 10 “Tier 2” countries, in which religious freedom violations are serious but do not rise to the level of the CPC standard. These countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.