USCIRF commends U.S., seeks more on religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Trump administration again demonstrated a commitment to global religious liberty in 2018, but the United States and other countries must do more to hold severe violators accountable, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2019 report.

The report, issued April 29, provides an international overview and individual reports and recommendations on 28 countries regarding the state of religious liberty last year from USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan panel. The document included recommendations to the State Department for designations of the world's most severe violators of religious freedom.

In its report, USCIRF said President Trump's administration "continued to emphasize its commitment to international religious freedom through statements from high-level officials, as it had in 2017." Those administration officials included Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The commission also said Sam Brownback -- who became ambassador at large for international religious freedom in February 2018 -- "energetically implemented his mandate."

In addition, the report noted the State Department's inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July in Washington, where delegations from more than 80 foreign governments gathered in an effort to combat persecution of and discrimination against people of all faiths. The second such meeting will be held this July.

USCIRF said, however, the United States, as well as the international community, must take stronger actions to protect religious adherents in some countries. The federal government also needs to address such problems as the processing of asylum seekers at its border and ports of entry.

The report gave special attention to the ongoing religious liberty abuses in China -- particularly its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the western part of the country.

Uighur Muslims "are constantly surveilled, their phones confiscated and scanned, their skin pricked for blood samples to collect their DNA, their children prohibited from attending mosque," according to USCIRF. "Even worse, the Chinese government has ripped entire families apart, detaining between 800,000 and two million adults in concentration camps and relegating some of their children to orphanages."

While the United States and a few other governments have strongly criticized the communist government, "China has faced few, if any, consequences," USCIRF reported. "Despite years of escalating abuses, the wider international community has tragically missed the opportunity to prevent what is now happening to Uighur and other Muslims in China."

The United States and the international community "must swiftly and resolutely sanction Chinese officials and agencies that have perpetrated or tolerated severe religious freedom violations," the commission said.

USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said in a news release accompanying the report, "In the past year, we have seen severe violations of religious freedom mount around the globe, from the imprisonment of individuals charged with blasphemy in several countries to the internment of over one million Uighur Muslims in China. We and others laboring in the realm of religious freedom must persevere in our efforts to make this right a reality for everyone, everywhere."

Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed the ERLC's gratitude "for the vigilance of USCIRF in holding states accountable for conscience freedom."

He looks forward "to the report's release each year because I know how important the commission's leadership is to advance international religious liberty," Wussow said in written comments for Baptist Press. "While we long for the day when lists like this are no longer necessary, we know state authority is still abused and the vulnerable voiceless depend on those of us with a voice to raise their case."

The recommendations of China and North Korea for the list of most severe violators of religious freedom are of particular interest to the ERLC because "we are working with [North Korean] defectors and a broad coalition calling for liberty for people whose consciences are held captive in those countries," Wussow said.

In addition to China and North Korea, USCIRF recommended "countries of particular concern" (CPC) designation for the eight other countries on the State Department's list named in November: Burma; Eritrea; Iran; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; Tajikistan; and Turkmenistan. CPC designation by the State Department is reserved for the world's most severe violators of religious liberty.

As it had last year, the commission again urged six other countries be on the State Department's CPC list: Central African Republic; Nigeria; Russia; Syria; Uzbekistan; and Vietnam.

USCIRF placed the same 12 countries on Tier 2, once known as its "watch list." Tier 2 countries, which are on the threshold of recommendation for CPC or Tier 1 designation, are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.

The commission also recommended five terrorist organizations as "entities of particular concern" (EPCs): The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); the Taliban in Afghanistan; Al-Shabaab in Somalia; Houthis; and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Pompeo named all but HTS as EPCs in November. He also designated five other Islamic terrorist groups as EPCs: al-Nusra Front in Syria; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Qaeda; Boko Haram in West Africa; and ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In its report, USCIRF's recommendations also included calls for:

-- The administration to appoint a special adviser on international religious freedom within the National Security Council.

-- The increased use of sanctions, such as visa denials and asset holds, on particular government officials, agencies and armed services units for "severe religious freedom violations."

-- Congressional delegations to examine during trips overseas religious liberty conditions for people of all faiths or none.

The president has various means for inducing countries on the CPC list to change, including sanctions such as export and travel restrictions. He also has the authority to waive such penalties because of the "important national interest of the United States."

USCIRF -- which is made up of nine commissioners selected by the president and congressional leaders -- tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.

The commission's 2019 report, which is 234 pages in length, is available at https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2019USCIRFAnnualReport.pdf.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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