New USCIRF Report Reveals Heightened Religious Persecution Across Globe
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2023 Annual Report, highlighting religious oppression taking place in dozens of nations around the world. In the report, the independent watchdog “sound[ed] the alarm regarding the deterioration of religious freedom conditions,” then outlined policy recommendations for the U.S. government in response to their findings.
USCIRF was created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 to function as an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body. It focuses on monitoring religious freedom issues occurring in foreign nations and reporting and recommending policy changes to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. While USCIRF supplies both legislative and executive branches of government with its research of religious freedom abroad, the nine Commissioners, appointed by either the president or congressional leaders of each political party, work to “raise public awareness” as well. The report, released Monday, did just that.
“Because it’s [USCIRF] only semi-related to the government, they can look at more factors related to religious freedom as opposed to having to balance religious freedom concerns with all of these other priorities that the State Department has to look at when they look at our diplomacy,” FRC’s Director of the Center for Religious Liberty Arielle Del Turco said on “Washington Watch” Tuesday.
After “assess[ing] religious freedom violations and progress in 28 countries,” the report then recommended which countries the U.S. State Department should designate as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) and which countries should be placed on its Special Watch List (SWL). According to IRFA, the only difference standing between a CPC and the SWL is the word “particularly.” While governments from CPC countries “[engage] or [tolerate] ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom,” governments from SWL countries “[engage] or [tolerate] ‘severe’ violations of religious freedom.”
In the report, USCIRF recommended 12 countries be redesignated as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, with Cuba and Nicaragua being added as first-timers. In 2022, the Cuban government sought “total dominance over religious life in the country,” immediately worsening the religious freedom conditions. Additionally, the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has greatly increased through the “imprisoning clergy, shuttering church-affiliated organizations, and prohibiting Catholic rituals.”
After USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel claimed to be “disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries,” he specifically highlighted the ongoing persecution in Iran, saying that “authorities harassed, arrested, tortured, and sexually assaulted people peacefully protesting against mandatory hijab laws, alongside their brutal continuing repression of religious minority communities.” The report’s cover photo featured Mahsa Amini, an Iranian woman who had been brutally killed by police after she allegedly was not wearing a headscarf in violation of government law.
China continues to raise particular concern from surrounding nations as they demand religious groups participate in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ideology. “During the year, Chinese authorities continued their repressive sinicization of Islam,” as well as “forced assimilation policy in Xinjiang that attempts to eradicate Uyghurs’ and other Turkic Muslims’ distinct ethnoreligious identities.” Prison camps that include torture remain a reality for Uyghurs under the CCP, posing a continual threat to religious freedoms in China.
Although the report claimed that “the administration of President Joseph R. Biden continued to prioritize protecting international religious freedom (IRF) and increasing accountability for violations,” the watchdog also recommended the administration add five more countries to the CPC list — Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam — with a heavy emphasis on Afghanistan.
With the Taliban’s return to power in August of 2021, the report highlighted how Afghanistan’s religious freedom has continued to deteriorate. In fact, the Taliban’s siege of power has begun to mirror their previous control over the country from 1996 to 2001. They have fervently targeted Shia Muslims and members of non-Muslim faiths, while also focusing their “most disastrous, sweeping, and repressive policies against the country’s women.”
“The State Department did not designate Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, or Syria as CPCs in 2022 despite USCIRF’s recommendations to do so,” so in turn, the report shared how USCIRF “issued a public statement criticizing the State Department’s omissions.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also reported to have “argued that the slaughter of Christians [in Nigeria] was not religious persecution but a result of a conflict over resources exacerbated by climate change.” USCIRF heavily emphasized all five new recommendations, encouraging the Biden administration to add them to the CPC, unlike the previous year.
“We also see countries that the State Department is a little sheepish about calling out … countries like Nigeria and India … [that] the State Department has really shied away from,” Del Turco told “Washington Watch” guest host Joseph Backholm. According to Del Turco, the reason is fairly simple. “When a country is designated as a Country of Particular Concern, the U.S. government has to take one of about 15 actions against that country,” and some are financial, she said.
In terms of the SWL, the report suggested Algeria and the Central African Republic remain on the list and encouraged the U.S. State Department to include nine more: Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Although the SWL is “like a second tier designation,” according to Del Turco, the report emphasized that the list should be taken seriously. For example, new findings have revealed “sufficient evidence of severe violations of religious freedom” in Sri Lanka, “such as discrimination against religious minorities in the form of targeted arrests using problematic legislation and appropriation of land and property.” Similarly, “Indonesia’s religious freedom conditions remained poor,” as found in 2021 as well.
Turkel strongly encouraged the Biden administration “to implement USCIRF’s recommendations.” As Del Turco candidly put it, “We have such an opportunity to be a leader in this area [of] religious freedom. … Instead, the Biden administration has shown a lot of interest in exporting a woke social agenda abroad. And it’s really sad, especially for these developing countries who rely on our support.”