When a bomb went off at his son's school in Afghanistan last week, Mohammad Hassan rushed around the city looking for his son. Hours later, Hassan found him in a refrigerated drawer of a hospital emergency room. Weeping, he told the Washington Post, "He was so smart, and he had so many dreams." The school is in a neighborhood in Kabul populated mostly by Hazara Muslim, a religious minority group now in mourning after a recent rash of attacks. These new tragedies are only the latest examples for why the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is calling for the State Department to designate Afghanistan a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) on religious freedom.
The Taliban -- trying to reinvent the image it earned while in power in the 1990's -- recently promised to protect the Hazara people, an ethnic Muslim minority the Taliban once persecuted. Sadly, no religious minority is safe in Afghanistan today. One leader in the Afghan House Church Network told USCIRF that "The Taliban, their plan eventually is the elimination of Christianity, and they have been very open about that." The intense fear felt by Afghan Christians isolates them as they attempt to live under the radar of the Taliban and other hostile extremists groups. This year's annual report marks the first time that USCIRF has recommended Afghanistan be labeled a CPC since 2001.
Each year, USCIRF's report includes recommendations for which countries should make the CPC list and the Special Watch List (SWL), a second-tier designation. In addition to the ten countries the State Department already designated a CPC at the end of last year (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan), USCIRF says the State Department should add five others: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.
Notably, Nigeria's CPC designation was removed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year after being placed on the CPC list in 2020, a move that shocked religious freedom advocates. USCIRF's latest report notes, "The State Department chose not to redesignate Nigeria as a CPC, despite religious freedom conditions in the country not changing significantly from the previous year. Furthermore, the State Department completely bypassed downgrading the country to the SWL, indicating that Nigeria is a country with no severe religious freedom violations as defined by IRFA."
Indeed, reports surface nearly every week about violence against Christian communities in rural Nigeria. Last month, a church building was set on fire and nearly 100 people were abducted in just one attack alone. After the State Department failed to re-designate Nigeria as a CPC, Family Research Council led a letter signed by 46 other groups and individuals, warning that "If America ignores what's happening in Nigeria, it will only excuse and encourage leaders who choose to turn a blind eye to grave human rights abuses and religious persecution. International pressure is one of the most significant weapons the world has available to stop the slow-motion war unfolding in Nigeria. America's leaders simply must not turn their backs and walk away."
At today's roll out, FRC President and USCIRF Commissioner Tony Perkins, underscored the urgency of Nigeria's need to protect Christians and others from attack, "Governments that fail to protect the most fundamental of human rights, like the freedom of religion, raise questions of their own legitimacy," Perkins said.
The State Department designated Russia as a CPC last year, and USCIRF recommends it keep that status. The report notes, "The Russian government continued to use an array of problematic legislation to persecute religious minorities, including Muslims, Protestants, members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Falun Gong..." Religious freedom violations in Russia-occupied Crimea against Crimean Tatars and other religious minorities are particularly worrying, especially as Ukraine fights Russia's invasion and seeks to prevent any of its territory falling under Russian occupation.
The threats to religious freedom around the world are many. USCIRF's 2022 Annual Report offers a just broad overview of the challenges many believers around the world face. The immense scale of the problem speaks to how important it is that the U.S. government continue to uphold this fundamental right for all people. The State Department should not seek to skirt its vital role in advancing international religious freedom. Rather, it should welcome and implement USCIRF's recommendations and be an unflinching advocate for religious freedom for everyone, everywhere.