The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report Wednesday, providing an overview of the world's top violators of religious freedom. The dire status of religious freedom around the globe is a call to action for the Biden administration to prioritize religious freedom in its foreign policy.
Numbers help tell the story of global religious freedom violations. An estimated 50,000 Christians remain in bondage in North Korean prison camps. Over 2500 Yazidi women and girls are still missing following ISIS' genocide. And in 2020, 15 houses of worship were attacked in Nigeria.
Over the past year, many countries used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to discriminate against religious groups, including discriminating against religious minorities seeking COVID relief aid.
However, there were a few signs for hope in 2020, the year studied in the report. At USCIRF's report launch, USCIRF Vice Chair and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, "we were encouraged by the evident progress" on religious freedom in Sudan, including the repeal of the country's apostasy law. Commissioner Anurima Bhargava also noted that three religious prisoners of conscience whose cases had been adopted by commissioners had been released in 2020.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 established mechanisms in the State Department to designate nations as "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPC) for severe violations of religious freedom. This year, USCIRF recommends adding India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam to the list. Though India is the world's largest democracy, USCIRF found that "one-third of India's 28 states limit or prohibit religious conversion to protect the dominant religion from perceived threats." In 2020, Russian authorities raided the homes of 477 Jehovah's Witnesses. Persistent problems in Syria and Vietnam warrant international attention as well.
For the second year in a row, USCIRF recognized Nigeria as a place where religious persecution runs rampant and recommended a CPC designation. The report stated that religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in Nigeria, and "Christian communities were hit particularly hard in the country's Middle Belt." Commissioner James Carr thinks Nigeria can do better, and he urged the country to "shape up."
At USCIRF's report launch, USCIRF Commissioners also emphasized China as a growing threat to religious freedom. In addition to committing an ongoing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China continues to crack down on house churches, underground Catholics, and those of other faiths. But as if that is not enough, China also works to suppress criticisms of their human rights abuses at home and around the world.
In April, the Chinese government sanctioned USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin and Vice Chair Tony Perkins for speaking out about grave abuses against religious believers in China, including an ongoing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, they responded to the sanctions, saying, "We won't be intimidated or silenced."
The Chinese government's attacks on the Commission only proves how effective it is. Authoritarian regimes do not like it when USCIRF draws attention to their religious persecution. This is exactly why they must continue to do so.
The United States' advocacy matters to other governments, even the Chinese government. To maintain U.S. energy on the issue, USCIRF recommends that the Biden administration promptly fill the role of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
Vice Chair Tony Perkins also said in a statement, "In order to maintain the crucial momentum of international religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority, USCIRF strongly urges the Biden administration to take a unique action for each country designated as a CPC to provide accountability for religious freedom abuses and to implement the other recommendations contained in our report." The CPC designations should not just be a list -- they must have consequences.
The Trump administration demonstrated impactful moral leadership on international religious freedom. Now is not the time to back down.
The last few years have seen religiously motivated attacks, genocides, and oppressive policies receive much-needed attention on the world stage. This provides for an opportune moment to seize on international religious freedom as a bipartisan issue.
As a historic leader on human rights, America has a unique role in advocating for religious freedom for all people, everywhere. For the sake of the persecuted and oppressed, President Biden should embrace this role. The need is great, but so is our potential to make a difference.