USCIRF: Religious liberty 'increasingly dire'

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Religious liberty continues to suffer globally at the hands of extremists and totalitarian governments, according to a new report by a congressionally approved watchdog.

In its annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the same countries it had proposed in 2012, with one exception, be named to the list of the world's worst violators of religious liberty. USCIRF urged the U.S. State Department April 30 to designate 15 governments as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs).

Those 15 recommendations included eight for redesignation that already have been labeled CPCs by the State Department: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. The other seven USCIRF proposed for CPC designation are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The bipartisan commission -- which advises the White House, State Department and Congress on religious freedom conditions overseas -- recommended Turkey's inclusion on the CPC list last year but not this year.

The State Department has not named CPCs since August 2011.

USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett described the condition of global religious freedom as "increasingly dire due to the presence of forces that fuel instability."

"These forces include the rise of violent religious extremism coupled with the actions and inactions of governments," Lantos Swett said in a written statement. "Extremists target religious minorities and dissenters from majority religious communities for violence, including physical assaults and even murder. Authoritarian governments also repress religious freedom through intricate webs of discriminatory rules, arbitrary requirements and draconian edicts."

The commission also placed eight countries on Tier 2, formerly known as its "watch list." Tier 2 countries, on the threshold of recommendation for CPC or Tier 1 designation, are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

Among the religious freedom violations cited by USCIRF:

-- Military abuses of Christians and non-government violence against Muslims in Burma;

-- China's persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong adherents, as well as the detention of Catholic priests and more than 1,000 underground Protestants;

-- Egypt's failure to protect Coptic Christians against violence;

-- The deteriorating state of religious liberty in Iran that includes the arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution of Baha'is, Christians and Sufi Muslims;

-- Nigeria's toleration of violence against Christians and Muslims;

-- Sudanese enforcement of strict Islamic law on Muslims and non-Muslims;

-- Tajikistan's repression of all religious expression outside government control;

-- An increase in harassment and violence in India for such minority groups as Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims and Sikhs;

-- Russia's favoritism of the Russian Orthodox Church and its suppression of "non-traditional" religious groups.

Swett called for American foreign policy to recognize "the critical role religious freedom plays" in many of these countries.

"Religious freedom is both a pivotal human right under international law and a key factor that helps determine whether a nation experiences stability of chaos," she said.

As it has in the past, the commission said the administration has failed to utilize adequately the actions provided under federal law to gain religious freedom improvements in CPCs. Those actions include sanctions against violators.

The U.S. president and congressional leaders select the members of USCIRF. The panel, normally made up of nine members, had only eight commissioners during the reporting period, which covered Jan. 31, 2012, to Jan. 31 of this year.

USCIRF's 364-page report is available online here.


Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).