The U.S. State Department removed Sudan from its list of governments that are engaging in or tolerating systemic and ongoing religious freedom violations and has placed Nigeria, Cuba, and Nicaragua on a special watch list for “severe violations of religious freedom” for the first time.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Friday the State Departments’ annual designations for “countries of particular concern.”
The “CPC” designation is required under the International Religious Freedom Act and shames countries where governments have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The CPC designation carries the potential for the U.S. to enact sanctions and other diplomatic actions against offending governments and government officials. However, sanctions have inconsistently been applied over the years to countries given the CPC designation.
The State Department re-designated nine countries as CPCs. Those include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
Sudan had been listed as a CPC for years. But it is no longer given that designation as dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed from power earlier this year and a transitional government has finalized a new constitutional declaration and has vowed to improve liberty and human rights.
Instead, Sudan has been placed on the State Department’s “special watch list” of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom” but are not quite at the level to be labeled as CPCs.
“The changes that have taken place there in the [Sudanese] government with the actions that have taken we believe merited their move to special watch list and off the list of countries of particular concern,” U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters on a press call Thursday.
Sudan joins Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan as well as fellow special watch list newcomers Cuba, Nicaragua, and Nigeria.
According to the State Department’s release, Sudan was moved to the special watch list due to “significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government to address the previous regime’s” violations of freedom.
Before the transition of power, Open Doors USA ranked Sudan as the sixth-worst country in the world for Christian persecution for its annual World Watch List. Bashir was ruling the country “as an Islamic state with limited rights for religious minorities,” according to Open Doors.
Under Bashir, Sudan had come under much international scrutiny for religious freedom abuses such as confiscating church properties, imprisoning pastors and even sentencing a Christian mother to death for apostasy.
But since Bashir’s ousting by a military coup d'état in April, Sudan finalized a Constitutional Declaration for the transitional period that no longer recognizes Islam as the primary source of law. Sudan has also repealed a public order law giving security forces authority to enforce religious-based moral teachings.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated body that makes recommendations to the State Department, during his visit to Washington this month.
Hamdok is the first Sudan government leader to visit the U.S. in three decades. He and his staff shared plans on how the transitional government is working to improve the status of religious liberty in Sudan, including hopes to change apostasy and blasphemy laws.
Ambassador Brownback, a former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas, said that the U.S. put together an action plan that was given to Hamdok when they met at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this year.
“They started implementing those items,” Brownback said. “They stopped bulldozing churches. They have redesignated both the normal Christmas and Orthodox Christmas as a national holiday. They have brought people of other faiths into the new cabinet as a symbolic symbol and statement. They have stopped raids on individual house churches and movements. They have gotten a couple of other things lined up that they haven’t acted on.”
Despite its removal from the CPC list, Sudan is still listed by the State Department as one of four state sponsors of terrorism.
“The Bashir government for 30 years has run an Islamist terrorist state out of Sudan. Over the last few years, they have lightened up some and not as much direct activity as when they used to house Osama Bin Laden and when he attacked us from their soil with impunity,” Brownback said.
“Well, now you have a new government that is coming in. The old dictator was thrown off and we really need to give them some breathing room to make this thing work and quickly.”
“They need to show the population that they can make this new system go,” Brownback continued. “I think we need to be forward-leaning to help them even though there are problems and they have done a lot of bad stuff over the years. I fought them for 20 years. Now is really a season where we need to lean in and help this new government to try to get as much right as possible.”
Faith McDonnell, the Director of Religious Liberty Programs and of the Church Alliance for a New Sudan at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post that she thinks it was a bit “premature” to take Sudan off the CPC list.
“I know that the whole reason for the CPC scheme was to encourage countries to do the right thing and stop doing the wrong thing, but I still think that the move is premature,” McDonnell contended. “Of course, they are on the special watch list. And I am glad of that. We have always had a tendency to give lots of carrots to Sudan for mere promises and not for delivering.”
McDonnell stressed, however, that there is not “enough evidence yet that Sudan is going to behave as if it’s indigenous black African tribal groups are equal to the Arab Northerners.”
“It would be nice to see that, as well as continuing evidence of religious freedom for Christians, and getting rid of those who had committed the atrocities in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba mountains like Hemeti,” she stressed.
McDonnell said, though, that she does have a reason for hope after hearing about how Sudan's Sovereign Council chairman met with representatives of people displaced by the Darfur genocide and stressed the importance of restoring their rights and returning them to their original villages.
USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore tweeted Friday that the State Department is "clearly optimistic about the reforms in Sudan."
"I understand why after meeting with their leaders," Moore wrote. "[And] clearly everyone recognizes the major challenges in front of them."
As for Nigeria, it was added to the special watch list for the first time as violence continues to plague several regions of the country.
In the northeast, the terrorist group Boko Haram continues to carry out attacks and abductions. In the Middle Belt, conflict among the farming and herding communities has led to the deaths of thousands in recent years. And in many cases, perpetrators are not being held to account by authorities.
A recent report from the U.K.-based nongovernmental organization Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust estimates that more than 6,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2015.
“We are designating [Nigeria] special watch list for the first time because of all of the increasing violence and communal activity and the lack of effective government response and the lack of judicial cases being brought forward in that country,” Brownback said.
“It is a dangerous situation in too many parts of Nigeria. The government has either not been willing to or have been ineffective in their response and the violence continues to grow.”
USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins said in a statement that USCIRF is "particularly gratified that the State Department recognized the severity of the violations in Nigeria." For years, USCIRF has recommended that the State Department recognize Nigeria as a CPC.
Perkins also voiced gratification for Cuba's placement on the special watch list, as the communist government has also drawn the ire of USCIRF for religious freedom violations and censoring of rights activists.