Last week, largely under the radar amid the heavy focus on impeachment votes and subsequent House-Senate drama on Capitol Hill, the State Department issued designations of the world’s worst countries for religious liberty.
Under the terms laid out in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the State Department identifies various countries that engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). The law also stipulates that the administration put out an annual report documenting the state of religious freedom around the world. The State Department announced the latest report back in June.
According to a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued Friday, this year’s administration-designated CPCs are:
A step below that, the statement adds, there is a lower-tier “special watch list” (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or allowed “severe violations of religious freedom.” Countries on that list:
One country that actually managed to make it off the CPC list this year was Sudan, a result of the removal of dictator Omar al-Bashir earlier this year. “Sudan was moved to the SWL due to significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government to address the previous regime’s ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,’” the administration’s statement explains.
In 2016, the the international religious freedom statute was amended to create a designation for non-state religious freedom violators as “entities of particular concern.” This year’s non-state designations include multiple jihadist terror organizations, including ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban.
“These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief,” Pompeo said in the statement.
“We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience,” Pompeo added.
“No country, entity, or individual should be able to persecute people of faith without accountability.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — an independent government watchdog that monitors conscience rights around the world — praised the designations in a statement.
“By calling out the governments that perpetrated or tolerated the most severe religious freedom violations globally in the past year, these designations send a strong signal that the U.S. government will not stand for these abuses,” said USCIRF chair Tony Perkins. Commission Vice Chair Gayle Manchin added that the State Department should respond punitively to the designations “to ensure strong consequences for the most egregious violators, and not rely on waivers or pre-existing sanctions.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. — a longtime advocate of global religious liberty protection on Capitol Hill — also hailed the State Department’s CPC designations, particularly as they relate to China’s repressive government.
“Congress has spoken out in particular with respect to Xi Jinping’s all-out effort to ‘Sinicize’ all religion in China, advancing legislation to protect Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and other believers,” Smith said in a press release. However, he also questioned Turkey’s absence from the SWL list, citing multiple violations.
While the kind of religious and conscience persecution that goes on in countries like China, Iran, and North Korea is fairly well known and makes news headlines somewhat regularly, more detailed descriptions of religious liberty abuses in other designated countries can be found in both the State Department or USCIRF’s annual reports on the issue.