PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A government commission that monitors religious freedom abroad has recommended that the State Department designate five new countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of their engagement in, or toleration of, “particularly severe” religious freedom violations, including against Christians.
In its 2023 report released on May 1, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the State Department designate Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam as CPCs, in addition to the 12 other countries it gave the designation in November.
The 12 countries the State Department has designated CPCs are Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Across those 12 countries, and the five new recommendations, the report outlines many instances where religious persecution by government entities and extremist groups has led to death, suppression, and displacement of many religious persons and communities.
A CPC designation, as outlined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, leads the government to attempt noneconomic policy options to end a country’s religious freedom violations, and impose economic penalties thereafter if the noneconomic attempts fail.
The report also recommends countries for the State Department to add to a “Special Watch List.” In essence, this is one level down from a CPC designation, and it’s reserved for countries that commit “severe” religious freedom violations.
USCIRF recommends that the State Department keep Algeria and the Central African Republic on the list after their 2022 designation, and that the State Department add Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. The commission recommended dropping Comoros and Vietnam from the list, though it recommended Vietnam receive a CPC designation.
The commission also recommended seven nonstate actors receive the “Entity of Particular Concern” (EPC) designation: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Houthis, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, in addition to current EPCs the Taliban and the Wagner Group.
USCIRF is the government body charged with making policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress — including recommending countries for a CPC designation — related to religious freedom violations. The State Department is not obliged to take USCIRF’s recommendations. The commission, created by the IRFA, is independent and bipartisan.
Here’s a look at Nigeria and Nicaragua, two countries USCIRF recommended in its 2023 report that the State Department either designate or redesignate a CPC that have particularly persecuted Christians, and a look at why the commission recommends Afghanistan, India, Syria, and Vietnam receive the CPC designation.
USCIRF called it a “tremendous disappointment” that the State Department failed to designate Nigeria a CPC in 2022, and called on the U.S. government to do so, as well as appoint a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin to maximize diplomatic efforts. The commission also recommended Congress investigate the effectiveness of U.S. efforts to address the issue.
A report published by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety) titled “Martyred Christians in Nigeria” states that at least 52,250 people have been killed in the past 14 years in Nigeria for their Christian faith, 30,250 of those since 2015.
There were 1,041 “defenseless Christians” killed in Nigeria in the first 100 days of 2023, the report states. And under President Muhammadu Buhari, who came into power in 2015, there have also been about 18,000 Christian churches, and 2,200 Christian schools destroyed.
In 2022, mob violence in Zamfara killed Christian university student Deborah Yakubu due to blasphemy accusations, and Christian health care worker Rhoda Jatau for blasphemy comments on her social media in the aftermath of the violence, according to the USCIRF report.
There was also an attack on a Catholic Church in Ondo State during Pentecost Sunday last year, in which 40 people were killed. The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Intersociety report claims that because of the violence against Christians over the years, some 8 million people have been forced to flee their homes, and at least 14 million were uprooted.
The USCIRF report notes that while federal authorities have worked to address the violence impacting religious freedom, there are questions about its effectiveness and how serious the efforts are taken at the state and local level.
“Rampant violence and atrocities across Nigeria continued to impact freedom of religion or belief, including militant Islamist violence; some forms of identity-based violence; mob violence; and criminal, political, and vigilante violence impacting worship,” USCIRF states.
Last year was the first time the State Department designated Nicaragua as a CPC, and USCIRF has called on the U.S. government to redesignate Nicaragua this year, impose targeted sanctions on Nicaraguan government agencies and officials responsible for the violence, press for the release of religious prisoners, and exercise increased scrutiny of financial assistance.
The commission also calls on Congress to hold a public hearing “to amplify congressional concerns over religious prisoners of conscience in Nicaragua.”
Persecution of Catholics has increased significantly in Nicaragua since 2018, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega accused Church leaders of attempting to overthrow the government when they acted as mediators after deadly protests broke out that left more than 300 people dead.
On Feb. 10, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa was sentenced to 26 years in prison, stripped of his citizenship, and given a large fine on charges of treason, undermining national integrity, and spreading false news. Ortega also reportedly banned outdoor Holy Week celebrations and processions, and two women religious and a priest were recently expelled from the country.
USCIRF notes that in 2022 “the Nicaraguan government heightened its crackdown against members of the clergy,” including imprisoning clergy for the first time. The regime also engaged in widespread hate speech against clergy and expelled priests or prevented them from returning.
Further, in 2022 the Nicaraguan government shut down over 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, revoked the legal status of a Catholic university, stripped funding from another, and approved a law that strengthens its control over educational institutions.
“In 2022, religious freedom conditions in Nicaragua worsened considerably,” USCIRF stated.
“The government of Nicaragua … escalated its campaign of harassment and severe persecution against the Catholic Church by targeting clergy, eliminating Church-affiliated organizations, and placing restrictions on religious observances,” it continued.
USCIRF Recommended CPC Additions: Afghanistan, India, Syria, and Vietnam
Not only did USCIRF recommend the four countries above and Nigeria be designated CPCs, but it did so last year as well — a recommendation that was ignored by the State Department. The government was a driver of religious persecution in each country.
In Afghanistan, the USCIRF report highlights that religious freedom in the country continued to worsen, as it has since the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021. The commission reported that the Taliban has ruled in a “deeply repressive and intolerant manner,” and has maintained a rigorous enforcement of Shariah that has violated freedom of religious minorities, including Christians, and members of the LGBTQI+ community and women.
In India, the commission reported that throughout 2022 the government — national, state, and local — promoted and endorsed religiously discriminatory policies that impacted Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis (Indigenous peoples and scheduled tribes).
The report stated that religious freedom conditions in Syria remained poor amid the ongoing civil war, political fragmentation, humanitarian crises, and contested governance. Non-state actors, including U.S. designated terrorist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, have also perpetrated many violations against religious minorities, in particular Christians and Druze.
And in Vietnam, USCIRF reported that much of the same happened as in the other countries — the government intensified its control and persecution of religious groups, especially those that are unregistered, independent communities. The persecution has included harassment, imprisonment threats, fines, and coercion to denounce or leave their religious denominations.
Outside of Vietnam, a key recommendation from USCIRF to the U.S. government to address the religious freedom violations in each country is imposing targeted sanctions on government agencies and officials responsible for severe religious freedom violations.