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USCIRF highlights pandemic church closures

India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam are listed as the world’s worst religious liberty offenders


The gate of Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi, India, which was closed to the public on Christmas Eve due to COVID-19 Associated Press/ Photo by Altaf Qadri

USCIRF highlights pandemic church closures

GLOBAL

USCIRF: Christian advocacy groups commended Wednesday’s 2021 report on religious freedom worldwide from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the first such report in the Biden administration. USCIRF is independent, but its findings are submitted to the State Department. The commission highlighted pandemic closures of houses of worship.

  • It recommended adding to the State Department’s list of worst offenders—a designation that carries the threat of sanctions—India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
  • It asked that 10 countries be placed on a watch list: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
  • It highlighted the role of nonstate actors in furthering persecution and religious violence, in particular Boko Haram in Nigeria, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  • It asked that the Biden administration maintain pressure on China and Iraq to halt abuses.

Genocide: Religious advocates will be watching for President Joe Biden to declare that the Ottomans committed genocide against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites, and other Christians in Turkey from 1915 to 1923. The April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of a pogrom that killed 1.5 million Christians. Biden would be the first U.S. president to renounce the century-old atrocities officially.

In 2019, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved resolutions calling for the genocide designation, but then–President Donald Trump did not oblige. Biden long worked on similar measures when he was a senator despite opposition from Turkey, a member of NATO. Turkish offensives directed toward Christians in Syria and Azerbaijan have highlighted the importance of protection for Christians in the region. “It should have been an easy thing for presidents before,” said Aram Hamparian, director of the Armenian National Committee of America in a call Wednesday, “but it’s never been easier.”

COVID-19: COVAX vaccine suppliers say they have delivered 38 million vaccine doses out of an expected 2 billion under the EU-led program needed for poorer countries this year.

Netherlands: The European Medicines Agency concluded Tuesday that the risk of blood clots with vaccines from Johnson & Johnson should be listed as “very rare” and its benefits—along with the AstraZeneca (now called Vaxzevria) vaccine—outweigh risks.

Switzerland: More than 200 nongovernmental organizations published an open letter calling for $5.5 billion in additional World Food Program (WFP) funding to stop more than 34 million people from being pushed to starvation this year. Malnutrition or lack of food has grown during the pandemic, while average food prices are now the highest in seven years, according to World Vision.

AFRICA

Chad: Idriss Déby, who seized power 30 years ago and became his country’s elected president, died as he commanded troops in a clash with rebels in northern Chad. Déby became a Western ally as the senior leader of the G5 Sahel Joint Force fighting Islamic State (ISIS)–backed terror groups in Africa. He was “an indispensable link in the political and security balance of West Africa,” said Trump’s envoy to the Sahel. (Biden has not appointed an envoy.)

ASIA & MIDDLE EAST

Egypt: ISIS militants broadcast a video showing the killing in Sinai of 62-year-old Nabil Habashy Salama, a Coptic Church leader who was kidnapped five months ago. “In their efforts to have him abandon the faith, they humiliated my father, and broke all his teeth to torture him,” Habashy’s son said. “Yet, through all this, he held on, and we are so joyful for him.”

Afghanistan: The best-case scenario for the U.S. following its complete withdrawal in September is an Afghan government that is able to keep the portions of the country it still holds, and parlay that into a compromise deal with the Taliban, writes former U.S. diplomat Alberto Fernandez. More important will be what happens with Afghan civil society, largely underwritten by NATO funds.

The withdrawal raises concerns about the prospects of release for Mark Frerichs, an Illinois contractor held for more than a year by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. (Yes, the U.S. deal with the Taliban was not conditioned on his release.)

India: The healthcare system is collapsing under an overwhelming COVID-19 surge. Seema Gandotra, sick with the coronavirus, gasped for breath in an ambulance for 10 hours as it tried unsuccessfully to find an open bed at six hospitals in New Delhi.

AMERICAS

Cuba: Raul Castro announced Friday he is stepping down as president—ending more than half a century of Castro family rule. But analysts argue the transition to his handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is in name only.

Venezuela has reached a deal with the UN World Food Program to distribute food to 185,000 children in the crisis-stricken country. U.S. aid continues to support humanitarian efforts even as U.S. officials, including WFP’s head David Beasley, meet also with opposition leaders.

EUROPE

United Kingdom: Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 95th birthday quietly on Wednesday with family just days after laying to rest her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, in a somber funeral ceremony on Saturday. Concerns about succession following the death of the queen remain high.

Spain: My nephew-journalist explains in a way even I can understand what’s wrong with the European elite clubs’ plan to form a “super league” of European soccer teams. Keep in mind: A Champions League final draws a global audience double the size of a Super Bowl audience.


Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.

@mcbelz

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