The independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its Annual Report for 2015, documenting religious freedom violations in 33 countries and assessing the U.S. government’s implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
Like the U.S. State Department, the Commission publishes a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) “where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.” Differences between the official State Department list and the Commission’s list—in its role as an independent advisory body—are noteworthy.
Remarkably, the State Department’s most recent list of CPCs does not include some of the countries of greatest persecution of Christians in the world today, namely: Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Nigeria.
In its report, the USCIRF strongly recommends that the State Department add these countries to its list of CPCs, along with Central African Republic, Egypt, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
The Commission states that:
It should come as no surprise that in the pages of this report, we have recommended that the United States designate all five of these nations – Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Burma – as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs under the International Religious Freedom Act. We are identifying their governments as well as others as either perpetrating or tolerating some of the worse abuses of religious freedom in the world.
In its recommendations, the Commission overlaps significantly with the World Watch List (WWL) for 2015, which found that nine out of the top ten countries where Christians suffer “extreme persecution” have populations that are at least 50% Muslim, and that “Islamic extremism is by far the most significant persecution engine” of Christians in the world today.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. It has resisted attempts of the Obama administration to substitute the language of religious freedom with the more restricted language of “freedom of worship.”
The IRFA also established the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. President Obama has deemphasized the importance of this post, leaving it vacant for the first two years of his presidency and for nearly another year from 2013 to 2014.
The 2015 Commission report also includes Cuba among the 10 countries on its “Tier 2” list of religious liberty abusers, a Commission designation for governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious but not CPC-level. The Commission urges increased U.S. government attention to these countries. On April 14 it was announced that President Obama was removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in a bid to restore diplomatic relations with that country.
In documenting violations of religious liberty, the Commission’s 2015 report underscores just how widespread anti-religious-motivated violence is in the world.
“By any measure,” the report states, “the horrors of the past year speak volumes about how and why religious freedom and the protection of the rights of vulnerable religious communities matter. Those responsible for the horrors have made the case better than anybody can.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.