What is happening?
The primary US government agency on global religious freedom issued its annual report 2 May. It says “religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault” during the past year, and says America should add seven countries to its list of worst offenders:
Also, the report includes Western Europe among a list of places that deserve monitoring because of worrisome developments.
It was written by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory council to Congress and the president. It covers 1 Feb., 2015 to 29 Feb., 2016. [Get a copy here]
It recommends that the president designate the seven countries as “countries of particular concern.”
A year ago, the commission’s annual report made the same recommendation about the same seven countries, plus Tajikistan. The State Department accepted that recommendation to add Tajikistan on 14 April.
What are ‘Countries of Particular Concern’?
US law defines them as those whose violations of religious freedom are “particularly severe,” which means:
“Systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as
(A) Torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment
(B) Prolonged detention without charges
(C) Causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons
(D) Other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”
About the US law
The president is required to maintain a list of “countries of particular concern,” considered the worst offenders of religious freedom, taking the commission’s annual report as counsel. The law directs the White House to “take action designed to encourage improvements in those countries,” the commission says. Those actions can range from nothing, to mutually negotiated treatments, to unilateral sanctions.
The law requires the State Department to report on religious freedom in each country, as part of its annual assessment of human rights around the globe.
The U.S. already had formally designated nine countries as “countries of particular concern”: Myanmar; China; Eritrea; Iran; North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Turkmenistan; and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan’s recent addition brings the list to 10.
Selected report findings
The 12-month period covered by the report was a year when the commission said a bad situation got worse.
“By any measure, religious freedom abroad has been under serious and sustained assault since the release of our commission’s last Annual Report in 2015,” it begins. It contains documentation of restrictions upon Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities.
Among the report’s examples of Christian persecution:
“Over the past year, the Chinese government has stepped up its persecution of religious groups deemed a threat to the state’s supremacy and maintenance of a ‘socialist society.’ Christian communities have borne a significant brunt of the oppression, with numerous churches bulldozed and crosses torn down.”
“More people are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan than in any other country in the world. Aggressive enforcement of these laws emboldens the Pakistani Taliban and individual vigilantes, triggering horrific violence against religious communities and individuals perceived as transgressors, most recently Christians and Muslim bystanders on Easter Sunday 2016 in Lahore.”
“Boko Haram continues to attack with impunity both Christians and many Muslims. From bombings at churches and mosques to mass kidnappings of children from schools, Boko Haram has cut a wide path of terror across vast swaths of Nigeria and in neighboring countries, leaving thousands killed and millions displaced.”
“Since the [Bharatiya Janata Party] assumed power, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by BJP politicians and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups.”
“India is on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom. USCIRF will continue to monitor the situation closely during the year ahead to determine if India should be recommended to the U.S. State Department for designation as a ‘country of particular concern.’ “
World Watch List
The seven countries that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends be classified as “countries of particular concern” also are prominent on the Open Doors World Watch list.
|Country||WWL rank 2015||WWL rank 2016|
|Central African Republic||17||26|
The World Watch List ranks the countries where life as a Christian is most difficult. It is published by Open Doors, a global charity that supports Christians who are pressured because of their faith.
Watching Western Europe
The report includes “Western Europe” on a list alongside five individual countries that the commission says should be monitored, though it has not recommended them for government sanction. The region was not included in the previous year’s report.
In several Western European countries, according to the report, governments have banned the wearing of religious symbols, including crosses. Some have been monitoring religious groups they deem as “cults” or “sects,” including some evangelical Protestant groups. And Christians have found themselves answering charges of hate speech or avoiding public education by home-schooling their children.
But most of the basis for the commission’s inclusion of Western Europe among areas to monitor is related to anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiment that has been rising along with the number of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa.