Numerous countries continue to perpetrate “egregious violations” of citizens’ religious rights, according to the 2021 Annual Report released this week by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The independent, bipartisan commission makes regular recommendations to the U.S. State Department about global threats—nations as well as entities. Despite its troubling findings, the USCIRF report did note that some progress and positive developments occurred in the area of religious rights during 2020.
Good news is cited in countries such as Sudan and Eritrea; for example, “many prisoners of conscience were furloughed or released” due to COVID-19 outbreaks, according to USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin. Conditions in other countries, however, should continue to raise alarms throughout the federal government, the commission warns.
USCIRF Report Lists Countries of Concern
As it did for almost all aspects of life in 2020, the pandemic affected religious freedom too. While “trying to balance public health concerns alongside the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief,” Manchin notes, “some governments took advantage of the restrictions to target specific religious communities.” Other governments “literally blamed the COVID-19 virus on a particular religion.” The commission plans to “monitor how countries respond to and recover from COVID-19,” adds Manchin, “and whether the loosening of [public health] restrictions is fair to people of all faiths and nonbelievers.”
In its assessment of 26 nations, the USCIRF labels 14 as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), a designation described as the “worst of the worst” for “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” They include 10 countries already designated as CPCs by the State Department (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) as well as India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.
The other 12 nations, based on USCIRF recommendations, belong on a Special Watch List (SWL). These include Afghan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Three countries removed from the latest SWL include Bahrain, the Central African Republic and Sudan, with the USCIRF noting that in 2020, conditions there didn’t meet the “high threshold” for SWL status.
Seven “Entities of Particular Concern” (EPCs) make the 2021 list, including Boko Haram, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Taliban. The report also addresses concerns such as attacks on houses of worship and religious oppression sparked by political unrest.
Johnnie Moore: This Is a Human-Rights ‘Bomb’
Evangelical leader Johnnie Moore, one of nine USCIRF appointees, calls the annual release of the USCIRF report a “bomb in the human-rights community that reverberates on every corner of the globe.” He urges the world to pay attention—something that didn’t happen, he says, when the first report, 22 years ago, “raised concern…about what the Chinese Communist Party was already then doing to the Uighur community.” Now, Moore tells CBN News, that country’s regime “works to reprogram an entire community while subjecting some of its own citizens to barbaric procedures like organ harvesting.”
Other hot spots from the new list include North Korea, which has topped the Open Doors “World Watch List” for 20 years; Pakistan, where strict anti-blasphemy laws target Christians and Hindus; and India, where the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist policies include anti-conversion laws as well as immunity for mob violence perpetrated against religious minorities. Anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, is another ongoing concern, according to USCIRF.
The commission, created as a result of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, won’t let offenders “sleep one night without screaming at the top of our lungs in a bipartisan way” that the actions won’t remain “in the shadows,” says Moore. He requests continued prayer for persecuted believers, saying, “It’s time for Christians to do what the Apostle Paul called them to do, which is to pray for those who are in prison as if they were there with them” (Hebrews 13:3).
Prioritize Religious Freedom, USCIRF Tells New Administration
Another bright spot from 2020 was the Trump administration’s emphasis on international religious freedom, says USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins. “Much progress was made,” he says, “and our 2021 Annual Report makes recommendations about how Congress and the executive branch, now under President Biden, can further advance the U.S. commitment to freedom of religion abroad.”