Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Unplugged on April 27, 2022.
On April 25, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) launched its Annual Report describing events in 2021– a detailed document focusing on more than two dozen countries that are engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations. Their report also offers suggestions and recommendations, while providing information regarding 15 specific prisoners of conscience, for whom USCIRF Commissioners have personally advocated.
Based on the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the Commission identifies countries in two specific categories: Countries of Particular Concern in which the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. It also assigns countries to a Special Watch List category in cases where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom.
For me, as one of many who have researched and written about religious persecution for decades, it’s unquestionably encouraging to see the American government’s attention focused on various abuses of religious believers, and many of these are specifically cited during the annual USCIRF event. There are relatively few shocking or graphic reports included in the presentation, describing the many ugly abuses that have taken place. Practically speaking, in a relatively brief webinar, such details would be impossible to detail.
However, the cruelties that lie behind USCIRF’s carefully worded designations are essential to understanding what is happening in today’s increasingly violent world. And as the businesslike presentation unfolded, I immediately recalled some of the nightmare scenarios of bloodshed, rape, mutilation and devastation that I’ve learned from eye-witness accounts and written about.
One prime example is Nigeria, which was briefly designated as a Country of Particular Concern for less than a year by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2020 – only to be unexplainably removed from the designation by the Biden Administration less than a year later. That was a terrible decision to be sure, and Nigeria should be a country of great and, yes, “particular“ concern to us all. The reason for the initial designation was based on massacres, kidnappings and destruction of properties—which has been going on since the early 2000s. Recent reports detail worsening conditions, which carry on without hindrance or recourse from the corrupt and likely complicit Nigerian government.
Another site where the faithful are abused is Iran. Those who do not embrace the state’s form of extreme Shiitte Islamism experience discrimination, arrest, violent interrogation and at times lengthy imprisonment. Iran’s Baha’is, Sunni Muslims—and particularly Christians—are relentlessly persecuted. Scenes of house churches arrests abound. Unjustly jailed believers endure filthy, cramped cells and physical abuse by guards and other prisoners. Some are murdered; others disappear. Yet despite the fact that this has been going on since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Christian population is exploding exponentially, especially among the youth, causing great distress to the elderly ruling ayatollahs.
Meanwhile, for decades we’ve heard about China’s chilling treatment of religious minorities, including groups like Christians, Buddhists and Falun Gong. Most recently and even worse, we’ve learned about deadly concentration camps housing more than 1 million Uighur Muslims. Peaceable Muslim women, men and children are being profoundly abused, enslaved and often killed in nearly unimaginable ways. And although China’s Christians are not (yet) being specifically imprisoned in concentration camps, in recent state crackdowns on religion, their worship centers are rapidly being shuttered and torched, their leaders targeted, abused and many are simply “disappeared.” Crosses are ripped off churches, Bibles burned, and those who are incarcerated are vulnerable to torture, sterilization and forced organ harvesting.
Most recently we’ve learned about the surprisingly large and secretive underground Christian movement in Afghanistan. We’ve also heard and seen ample evidence of the violence perpetrated against these believers by the Islamist Taliban followers. Christian women and girls are violently discriminated against; those who are not “properly” covered are often specifically targeted to suffer rape, forced marriage, disfigurement and/or public execution. In August, 2021 Catholic News Agency reported,
Afghanistan’s Christian community, which is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 people, is comprised mostly of converts from Islam and is the country’s largest religious minority group. Due to persecution, the Christian community remains largely closeted and hidden from the public eye. Under sharia, including in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover, apostasy from Islam is punishable by death. Converts to Christianity are the frequent target of Islamic extremist groups.
USCIRF’s 2022 event did not detail many of the specific abuses and atrocities that are being inflicted on Christian believers, but they were clearly laid between the lines as the commissioners cited the conclusions they had reached from their carefully researched and analyzed fact-finding assignments. And for 2022, based on religious freedom conditions in 2021, USCIRF offered the following recommendations to the U.S. State Department:
Redesignate as Countries of Particular Concern the following: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan;
Designate as additional CPCs the following five countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam;
Maintain on the Special Watch List the following three countries: Algeria, Cuba, and Nicaragua
Include on the SWL the following nine countries: Azerbaijan, CAR, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan;
Redesignate as EPCs (Entities of Particular Concern) the following seven nonstate actors: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) (also referred to as ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
Most of us can only watch from afar as Christians in increasing numbers face discrimination, violence and death; we can only and pray for their protection, relief and rescue. But when we seek to speak out, it is reassuring to know that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom continues to serve as a global watchdog, cataloguing abuses against all religious believers across our increasingly dangerous world. On behalf of our Christian sisters and brothers who suffer, we are thankful for USCIRF’s careful and invaluable work.