A glimmer of hope in bringing accountability to religious freedom violators abroad
As the world is trying to resume some semblance of normalcy, it is abundantly clear that global violations of the fundamental human right of religious freedom persisted during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We watched with alarm as the Taliban took control as the de facto government of Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal last August. Religious communities of all stripes have since 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.
For the first time since 2001, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has decided to recommend in this year’s annual report that the U.S. State Department designate Afghanistan under Taliban control as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended.
USCIRF’s 2022 Annual Report, released today, sheds light on the most severe religious freedom concerns abroad, and Afghanistan is only one of many countries in which freedom of religion or belief is under consequential threat.
Although we removed the Central African Republic (CAR) from last year’s annual report following a reduction of violations in 2020, we were disappointed to observe Central African authorities and their partners committing egregious and ongoing religious freedom violations over the past year—including targeted abductions, torture, and killings of Muslims. These conditions led us to reinstate our recommendation that the U.S. Department of State place CAR on its Special Watch List (SWL).
We also remain deeply troubled by the dire circumstances in Nigeria, particularly given the State Department’s inexplicable removal of Nigeria as a CPC last year without any justification of significant improvements in religious freedom. Africa’s most populous country of approximately 211 million has remained a hotbed of religious violence against Christians and Muslims, and we again maintain that it should return to CPC status in 2022.
The use and abuse of restrictive laws to repress religious freedom remains one of our main concerns around the world. A range of countries continued to enforce blasphemy laws, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, with Pakistan persisting as the most frequent enforcer. In neighboring India, the government continued to invoke the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Sedition Law to silence those reporting on and speaking out against abuses targeting religious minorities.
Despite these concerns and many others across the world, USCIRF has been heartened to find the U.S. government continued to hold international religious freedom (IRF) as a key foreign policy priority.
President Joseph R. Biden maintained many of the international religious freedom-related commitments from the previous administration. That has included the appointment of several key related posts, such as Rashad Hussain as Ambassador at Large for IRF; Deborah Lipstadt as special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism; and Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya as special coordinator for Tibetan issues.
We were encouraged that the U.S. government implemented several of USCIRF’s recommendations over the last year. The State Department designated Russia as a CPC for the first time, which we have recommended since 2017. Additionally, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed Global Magnitsky sanctions on individuals, both state and non-state actors, who have been responsible for egregious human rights abuses and religious freedom violations in Cuba, China, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Additionally, the Biden administration signed into law the permanent authorization of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act which Congress passed in April 2022.
In March 2021 and March 2022, respectively, we also saw the current administration recognize as genocide and crimes against humanity the atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese government against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims, and by the Burmese military against Rohingya Muslims. We urge the United States and like-minded partners to work together to seek accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes going forward.
As the United States continues to face serious foreign policy challenges this year—from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the ongoing genocides against religious minority communities in China and Burma—we at USCIRF will continue to advocate unceasingly and unflinchingly for the essential right of religious freedom for all people of faith, as well as those who hold no faith, around the world. We will continue to call on the U.S. government to fulfill its commitment to the same—as we have every year since our first annual report 22 years ago.
Nadine Maenza is USCIRF chair and Nury Turkel is USCIRF vice chair.