PROSPECT HEIGHTS — All five of the new countries that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that the State Department designate as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) have experienced Christian persecution in the past year.
USCIRF recommended Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam for the CPC list in its 2022 annual report published on April 25. The potential newcomers were recommended with the 10 countries on last year’s list — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — that were recommended for redesignation, as well.
Nadine Maenza, the commission chair, told The Tablet on April 25 that a “deterioration of religious freedom globally” continues for many different faiths, noting that not much has changed between the publication of the 2021 and 2022 reports. The 2022 report concerns the year 2021, and the 2021 report concerns the year prior.
In remarks earlier in the day, Maenza focused on the “chilling” plight of religious minorities in Afghanistan. The cover of this year’s report shows images from the Middle East nation — a crowd of women protesting the Taliban, people around a ravaged and bloodied house of worship, and a line of families, flanked by soldiers, boarding a plane to flee.
“We are disheartened by the deterioration of freedom of religion or belief in some countries — especially Afghanistan under the Taliban’s de facto government since August,” Maenza said. “Religious minorities have faced harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs, and years of progress toward more equitable access to education and representation of women and girls have disappeared.”
Religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan worsened through the latter half of 2021 after the Taliban took control. By year’s end, the one known Jew and most Hindus and Sikhs had fled the country. Christians — of which there are around 7,000 — as well as Baha’is, and Ahmadiyya Muslims practice their faith in hiding out of fear of reprisal and threats from the Taliban and separately from the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), according to the report.
Maenza noted, however, that the Taliban’s role as the de facto government is somewhat advantageous, in the way they can be held accountable.
“Right now, the Taliban won some national legitimacy and that is something that’s working to our advantage in that you’re not seeing them fill coliseums with people to be executed,” Maenza said. “I do believe the international community has a role to play in pressuring them whether it be through sanctions, economic relationships.”
For Christians specifically, Maenza pointed to Nigeria as the biggest concern. The report notes both state and non-state actors — such as extremist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province — committed egregious violations.
It highlights that citizens faced blasphemy charges and convictions, targeted violence, and attacks during religious ceremonies. Examples include the murder of a minister in retaliation for his alleged involvement in converting a Muslim to Christianity.
From non-state actors, there were at least six attacks on houses of worship, and at some 13 religious leaders kidnapped for ransom — including eight Catholic priests and two Protestant pastors.
USCIRF had called for Nigeria to be on the CPC list for these kinds of offenses since 2009. The State Department finally put Nigeria on the list in 2020 but chose not to redesignate it in 2021.
“There’s so much horrific violence happening [in Nigeria] and our concern with this government not even putting Nigeria on the list is that it disincentivized Nigeria to take any role in stopping the violence,” Maenza said.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission that monitors and reports on religious freedom to the federal government and Congress. It is separate from the State Department. Based on its findings, each year it recommends countries for the State Department to designate as CPCs, which can be accepted or ignored.
The CPC label is reserved for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “systematic, ongoing, and egregious [religous freedom] violations” including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges; causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”
The report also includes policy recommendations for the Biden administration and Congress. For the Biden administration, USCIRF recommendations include appointing a special advisor for international religious freedom on the National Security Council, prioritizing resettlement through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program survivors of the most “egregious” forms of religious persecution, and addressing flaws in the treatment of asylum seekers in expedited removal. It calls on Congress to create a Senate Human Rights Commission.
Maenza added that it’s important for the U.S. government and Congress to use more sanctions, and to be involved with different international organizations that deal with religious freedom to expand the network of diplomatic partners.
Maenza identified Russia and China as two other countries that pose a threat to Christians. Specifically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine causes a risk to non-Russian Orthodox Christians, given the way they were treated when Russia previously invaded Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. And in Russia itself, the government supports legislation that persecutes religious minorities including Protestants, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Falun Gong, and the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
“Russia is one of the worst violators in the world for religious freedom. We have seen an increase in harassment of religious minorities in Russia, and we would only expect that to continue,” Maenza said. “And when you look at what Ukraine could look like with a Russian occupation, religious freedom would look probably even worse than it looks in Russia because that’s what we’ve seen even in other areas of Ukraine.”
“That’s a big shift for religious freedom and disconcerting to us when we look ahead to what Ukraine could look like in the coming years,” she continued.
China, meanwhile, has been designated a CPC by the State Department since 1999. And 23 years later, Maenza and the other USCIRF commissioners detail conditions “that continue to deteriorate in a way that we didn’t think possible.” Catholics, Protestants, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong, and the Church of the Mighty God are all religious groups that are being targeted more so now than in previous years.
“Anybody that practices their faith is at risk in China the way the government is trying to sanitize religion; to make every religion Chinese and control it,” Maenza said.
The detention of Uyghurs in state-sponsored internment camps has been well documented. Maenza noted also that Catholic priests and Protestant Christians have been harassed, detained, imprisoned, and physically abused. Catholic and Protestant churches have also been demolished.
USCIRF commissioner Nury Turkel said on April 25 that part of the concern with China is the influence they have on other countries that violate religious freedom.
“They are exporting their methods to other countries,” Turkel said. “the countries that we cover, have a very good intimate relationship with China and they are borrowing pages from the Chinese way of persecuting religious minorities and making it a general practice.”
Turkel added that sanctions and partnerships with like-minded governments are vital to combat China’s onslaught against religious liberty.
“We need to focus on a utilization of existing legal tools to impose Visa restrictions and financial sanctions on those individuals and their expanded group of individuals who have been orchestrating, designing, and implementing those harsh policies against vulnerable religious communities in China,” Turkel said. “We also cannot ignore our partnership with like-minded governments.”