TWH — Earlier this year, the US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report. USCIRF is specifically charged with the mission “to advance international freedom of religion or belief, by independently assessing and unflinchingly confronting threats to this fundamental right.”
The report highlights countries and entities that USCIRF believes deserve specific designations that identify nations where religious freedoms are under serious attack and highlight the worst offenders for policymakers.
“Countries of Particular Concern” or CPC is the strongest of these designations and identifies countries that commit or condone “particularly serious” gross violations of religious freedom.
These violations include (A) torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charge; (C) causing the disappearance of persons by kidnapping or clandestine detention of such persons; or (D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty or security of person.
Ten countries were redesignated in the report as meeting these criteria: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this year in June that “respect for religious freedom is not only one of the most deeply held values and a fundamental right.” Blinken added: “It is also, from my point of view, a vital foreign policy priority.”
He went on to say, “China continues its genocide and repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other minority religious groups.”
Blinken also noted that Saudi Arabia makes it illegal to practice any religion other than Islam; Pakistan sentences people to death for blasphemy; and Eritrea requires arrested members of its religious minorities to renounce their faith before their release.
Five new countries have been added: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam.
Regarding Afghanistan, the report notes the Taliban takeover after the US and Western withdrawal in August 2021, and the strict interpretation of Sunni Islam that puts practitioners of other faiths in grave danger. The oppression of women, the treatment of Jews and Christians, Baha’is and Ahmadiyya Muslims were among those facing severe persecution, with some groups going into hiding.
India has been singled out for the rise of a Hindu nationalist agenda which “negatively affects Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits and other religious minorities”. The report notes that national and local state governments have demonized the act of converting to other religions and enacted public notice requirements that have resulted in violence against individuals in interfaith marriages as well as door-to-door inspections. doorsteps of residences to identify people who have converted from Hinduism.
Despite Nigeria’s constitutional protections for religious freedom, the report notes that Nigerian citizens continue to face charges and convictions for blasphemy, violence and attacks during religious ceremonies. The report identified Kano State in the north, specifically noting that the region has a religious police force called Hisbah Board.
The report states that the Hisbah’s board “arrested and charged five men suspected of engaging in homosexual activity. Those convicted of sodomy under the Kano Sharia Penal Code can be sentenced to 100 lashes and one year in prison if unmarried or stoning to death (Rajm) if married or already married.
The report notes that Syria was added because of multiple threats to religious freedom, including the rise of minority Sunni rule and the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It is also noted in the report that the armed forces and Islamist militants have stripped religious minorities, such as the Yazidis, of their autonomy and forced them to exercise religious jurisdiction.
The report notes that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria continues to foster religious diversity and “openly support pluralism and collaboration among religious and ethnic groups.” But that these successes remained threatened.
Finally, Vietnam was added for the government’s continued enforcement of a 2018 Belief and Religion Act. The law states that “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of belief and religion, to follow or not to follow a religion. 2. Everyone has the right to manifest their belief or religion; practicing religious beliefs or rites; participate in festivals; study and practice religious principles and canon laws.
However, the law also requires that all Buddhist monks be approved by the government-approved Buddhist organization, Vietnam Buddhist Sangha. Other religious groups are subject to surveillance to protect public order and the national interest, and religious groups may be subject to “public criticism, forced renunciation of faith, detention, interrogation, torture and imprisonment”.
Four countries have been placed on a lesser designation called the “Special Watch List” (SWL). USCIRF recommended that three countries remain on the SWL: Algeria, Cuba and Nicaragua. The Commission recommended the addition of nine new countries to SWL: Azerbaijan, CAR, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan.
In addition, the Commission recommended that seven non-state actors be redesignated as “entities of particular concern” (EPC): al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) (also called ISIS-West Africa) and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
As part of its mission, USCIRF hosts a series of panels throughout the year covering religious freedom issues in many of these countries. The Wild Hunt will follow up and report back.
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs is not explicitly notified of travel to these regions, nor does it issue an advisory as a result of this report. However, they note the local laws and particular circumstances of each nation and faith travelers.
U.S. citizens are advised to consult the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ guidance for faith-based travel which includes a variety of activities “from pilgrimages to service projects, from missionary work to faith-based visits.” Other countries have similar sites in their Department of State or equivalent department.
Members of minority religions are regularly advised to keep up to date with local laws and customs. There are, for example, countries where witchcraft is a punishable offence: Gambia, India, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania and Uganda.
Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain also attended the release of the report in June saying, “Our greatest hope is that together we can unite our efforts to ensure respect for freedom of religion or of belief for all people around the world, and we continue to stand in solidarity with all who seek to exercise their beliefs. “