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U.S. commission flags countries with the worst religious persecution

The annual report calls for concrete action against repressive governments

State Department complex in Washington, D.C. Getty Images/Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency

U.S. commission flags countries with the worst religious persecution

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is again asking the State Department to include Nigeria, India, and Afghanistan on its list of worst religious freedom violators. The independent and bipartisan commission released its annual report on Monday, calling on the State Department to take more concrete action against offenders.

Created in 1998 under the International Religious Freedom Act, the commission issues nonbinding recommendations to the administration and Congress. This year’s report recommends that the State Department add Syria and Vietnam to its list of CPCs, or countries of particular concern, due to systemic violations.

Christian communities in Nigeria face repeated attacks from Islamist insurgents and armed Fulani herders in central and northern Nigeria. Last month, central Benue state reported 134 people died within one week in attacks blamed on Fulani groups. State officials also implemented blasphemy laws in the north, the report added.

The commission called for a special envoy to Nigeria and the larger Lake Chad Basin region. “That person could put tremendous pressure on the Nigerian government,” said Commissioner Frank Wolf. “They could use the CPC designation to cut funding—come to Congress and say, ‘withhold funding until the Nigerian government does something.’”

The report noted that India’s Hindu nationalist government enforced laws over the past year that penalized religious conversions, surveilled religious minorities, and destroyed places of worship. On Tuesday, the country’s external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi rejected the commission’s report, characterizing it as an ongoing regurgitation of biased comments.

The commission also urged the State Department to retain its CPC designation for 12 other countries: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

The commission said Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government has intensified its repression of religious freedoms, particularly against the Roman Catholic Church. The government canceled the legal status of the Missionaries of Charity group, founded by Mother Teresa, as part of a larger crackdown on more than 3,000 nonprofits. The government also detained several religious leaders, including Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, for conspiracy and spreading false news. In February, he received a 26-year sentence after refusing to be deported to the United States.

“Churches have been closed, individuals have been imprisoned, individuals have been exiled,” said Commissioner Eric Ueland. “All these sorts of things are indicative of an accelerating trend by Nicaragua’s leadership to crack down on Christians and Catholics in Nicaragua.”

Commissioners noted that Russian authorities continue to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and fine religious minorities over missionary activities the government considers illegal. The commission said Russia’s violations also extended to parts of Ukraine invaded since the war began last year.

“Much of that violence has been aimed directly at religious institutions, at clergy, at cemeteries, at holy sites of a variety of denominations,” said Commissioner Stephen Schneck.

For the first time, the commission included Sri Lanka on its special watch list. The report noted that authorities in the Buddhist nation cracked down on Muslims and Hindus. “Land grabs and persecution, discrimination, all conducted under the aegis of the Sri Lanka regime there,” Schneck said. “We’re seeing the imprisonment and harassment of all non-Buddhist religious leaders in the country.”

The report also highlighted seven terror groups for possible sanctions, including the Taliban, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State in West Africa Province.

The commissioners praised some of the Biden administration’s actions, such as designating the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group as an entity of particular concern, after reports of extrajudicial arrests and killings in the Central African Republic. But they called on the State Department to better enforce the designations.

“We recommend that the State Department impose meaningful consequences on violator governments when it actually names its CPC list,” said Vice Chair Abraham Cooper. “Such as by not reissuing the waivers based on other U.S. interests that have so far allowed Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to avoid penalties and other repercussions.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.


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