The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its 2020 annual report, which contains a detailed assessment of 29 countries on the implementation of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
Issued April 28, the report provides a series of recommendations to the U.S. administration, State Department and Congress. Religious liberty, the report emphasizes, remains under threat the world over.
In a change from its 2019 report, the USCIRF, a bipartisan, independent federal government body created by the1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), listed India as one among 14 “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for their “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. Last year, India was what the religious freedom panel called a “Tier 2” country, a category that the USCIRF has replaced from this year onward with a “Special Watch List” (SWL) of nations that the State Department needs to closely monitor for their severe violations of religious freedoms. Additionally, Sudan and Uzbekistan, which were CPCs last year, moved up a notch as SWL nations.
Besides India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam, this year’s CPCs include nine countries designated as such by the State Department in December 2019: Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
A total of 15 other countries, according to the report, are in the SWL category this year. Four of them—Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan and Uzbekistan—made positive, albeit faltering steps toward religious freedom. The other SWL countries include Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.
“We are encouraged by the positive steps some governments took in 2019—particularly two that engaged closely with USCIRF—to establish a safer environment for freedom of religion or belief,” USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins stated in the report. “Sudan stands out, demonstrating that new leadership with the will to change can quickly bring tangible improvements. Uzbekistan also made important progress in 2019 toward fulfilling the commitments it made to allow religious groups greater freedom.”
“We are encouraged by the positive steps some governments took in 2019—particularly two that engaged closely with USCIRF—to establish a safer environment for freedom of religion or belief.”
“Though other countries deteriorated, particularly India, we see international religious freedom on an upward trajectory overall,” Perkins added.
India attracted sharp criticism in the report for pursuing “national-level policies violating religious freedom,” most significantly by amending a long-standing citizenship law last December, which offers immunity to undocumented immigrants from half a dozen religious faiths but excludes Muslims.
The report noted that the new law, the Citizenship Amendment Act, offers non-Muslim migrants from three neighboring countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan—a fast track to Indian citizenship. The government’s action sparked violent protests across the country, where Muslims are a sizeable minority.
“According to government officials’ statements, this law is meant to provide protection for listed non-Muslim religious communities—but not for Muslims—against exclusion from a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the resulting detention, deportation, and potential statelessness,” the report added.
The report also recommended that—besides strengthening diplomatic engagements with religious communities, local officials and law enforcement, particularly in areas impacted by religiously motivated violence—the U.S. administration impose target sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.
The Indian government has dismissed the USCIRF report’s downgrading of India as a CPC. “Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new,” the BBC quoted Anurag Srivastava, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman, as saying of the latest report. “On this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.”
The Indian American Muslim Council, an advocacy group, welcomed the report, saying: “As a part of the Indian diaspora that only wishes well for the country of our birth, we view international criticism of India’s religious freedom record as distressing but painfully necessary, given the escalating level of persecution of minorities.”
It further said that in March, “along with its partners, International Christian Concern (ICC) and Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR), it had written to USCIRF urging it to bring India into its list of the worst offenders of religious freedom violations in the world.”
The annual report recommended to the State Department that five non-state actors be re-designated as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for violations of religious freedom or belief. These entities comprise five terrorist or militant groups that the State Department named as EPCs in December 2019—al Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthis in Yemen, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The report recommended that a sixth group, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, be added to the EPC list.
The USCIRF report also recommended that the U.S. administration employ the 2017 Global Magnitsky Human Right Accountability Act to “increase the use of targeted sanctions to deter religious persecution by using human rights-related financial and via authorities to impose asset freezes and/or visa bans on individual officials, agencies, and military units for severe religious freedom violations, citing specific abuses.”
The law governs extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals in foreign countries seeking to expose illegal activity conducted by government officials, or to achieve, exercise or advance human rights and freedoms.
From its beginnings, the Church of Scientology has recognized that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. In a world where conflicts are often traceable to intolerance of others’ religious beliefs and practices, the Church has, for more than 50 years, made the preservation of religious liberty an overriding concern.
The Church publishes this blog to help create a better understanding of the freedom of religion and belief and provide news on religious freedom and issues affecting this freedom around the world.