USCIRF urges US gov't to add 4 countries to list of worst religious freedom violators

The U.S. Department of State is seen on January 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C. | Mark Wilson/Getty

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has urged the State Department to add India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam to its list of countries designated as the worst religious freedom violators.

The State Department is expected this month to decide which countries should be designated as a Country of Particular Concern or placed on its Special Watchlist based on religious freedom conditions as per the USCIRF’s latest annual report.

In a press release, the commission, a congressionally mandated body of independent experts tasked with advising the federal government on religious freedom issues, says it's reiterating that it has recommended four countries for CPC status that the State Department did not previously designate.

Countries subject to the State Department’s “CPC” designation face negative consequences, including the possibility of crippling sanctions.

“The additional countries USCIRF recommends for CPC designation include India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam,” the press release says. “The additional countries USCIRF recommends for the SWL include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan.”

In recent years, Christians in India have faced escalating persecution that has seemingly coincided with the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The country is ranked by Open Doors USA as the 10th-worst in the world regarding the severity of Christian persecution. 

However, allies of the Indian government have worked to pressure the USCIRF to reverse its recommendation that the State Department label India as a CPC.

“Indian American Christians are deeply concerned about a campaign run by a foreign Hindu nationalist government through its proxies in Washington to reverse the USCIRF  recommendation on India,” John Prabhudoss, the chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, said at a panel event in April to discuss “India’s Designation as CPC” hosted by International Christian Concern.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) speaks during a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on September 24, 2021, in Washington, D.C. President Biden is hosting a Quad Leaders Summit later today with Prime Minister Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. | Getty Images/Pool/Sarahbeth Maney

While the USCIRF included India on its list of countries of particular concern in its 2020 annual report, the U.S. State Department never acted on that recommendation. USCIRF cited the implementation of “national-level policies violating religious freedom across India” as a cause for particular concern. However, the Indian government rejected the report’s findings as “biased.”

Human rights groups in India said last month they had documented over 300 incidents of Christian persecution in just the first nine months of 2021, warning that this year might be the worst in terms of the number of such incidents in the country’s history.

About Russia, the USCIRF said in its report: “For years, the Russian government has conducted a purge of ‘non-traditional’ religions … Russian courts continue to deliver harsher and more numerous prison sentences for Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to practice their faith. Those on the government’s expansive extremism and terrorism list include many who have not been convicted of a crime. Individuals remain on the list even after serving out sentences, with their finances frozen or restricted as a consequence, and their right to participate in religious activity prohibited.”

About Syria, the report noted: “In 2020 and 2021, both the Syrian government as controlled by President Bashar al-Assad and a variety of non-state actors such as Turkish-backed Islamist groups have perpetrated violations of religious freedom. While in regime-controlled areas the government did not crack down on religious minorities if they had no specific record of political opposition, President Assad continued to progressively co-opt religious authority.”

The USCIRF said it continued to receive reports that local authorities in Vietnam “carried out physical assaults, detention, imprisonment, forcible confiscation of church properties and assets, and other abuses against members of Hmong and Montagnard Christian communities, including efforts to force these Christians to renounce their faith.”

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