By Lisa Zengarini
The situation of religious freedom is worsening around the world, a U.S. independent monitoring commission has said in a new report.
In its 2023 Annual Report, released recently, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported a significant “regression” in countries such as Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Russia.
The report by the bipartisan federal entity makes foreign policy recommendations to the U.S. Administration and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief abroad.
The recommendations help the U.S. Department of State draw up its annual list of governments and non-state actors that engage in, or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of religious freedom.
For 2023 USCIRF recommends 17 countries to the State Department for designation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs). They include 12 that the Department already designated as CPCs in November 2022 (Myanmar, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) as well as five additional nations: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.
The 2023 Report also recommends 11 countries for placement on the State Department‘s Special Watch List (SWL).
Among them, Algeria and the Central African Republic (CAR) that the State Department had placed in its list last year.
The other 8 countries recommended for the SLW are: Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and for the first time Sri Lanka, due to its deteriorating religious freedom conditions in 2022.
The report details the difficult circumstances for people of faith in these 28 nations, such as the persecution of Catholic Church leaders by President Daniel Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua, or human rights violations amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
USCIRF further recommends seven non-state actors for redesignation as Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs) for “systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations”. The State Department designated all seven of these groups as EPCs in November 2022.
They are: the Somali al Shabaab Islamist organisation; the Nigerian Boko Haram Islamist terrorist group; the pro-Iranian Houthis in war-torn Yemen; Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni Islamist armed organisation involved in the Syrian Civil War; the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS); the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP or ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), created in Mali in 2017.
In the report, USCIRF expresses alarm over the continued enforcement of blasphemy provisions punishing individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, and efforts to enact stricter blasphemy legislation in several countries. “Blasphemy prosecutions demonstrate a blatant disregard for human rights, and are often used to target members of religious communities and others who hold different or dissenting views,” said USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel in a statement, urging the U.S. Administration to implement the recommendations , and to review U.S. policy toward the four CPC-designated countries for which waivers were issued on taking any action.”