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US commission lists new countries where religious freedom is under threat

07 May 2024


Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity in New Delhi last Friday at a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the violent clashes between ethnic and religious groups in Manipur

Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity in New Delhi last Friday at a vigil to mark the first anniversary of the violent clashes between ethnic and rel...

INDIA has rejected as “propaganda” a US report on religious freedom that urged President Biden to place India on a list of countries of particular concern.

The annual report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was published last week. The commission is an independent agency that recommends countries for designation as of particular concern (CPCs), where there is evidence of severe violations of religious freedom.

The US President and administration is not required to accept the recommendations, and, for four years now, the US government has declined the USCIRF recommendation to designate India as a CPC.

The commissioner of USCIRF, Dr Stephen Schneck, argued that the US needed to “move the needle a little bit more” to stand up for religious freedom. “In general, globally, we’re seeing freedom of religion and freedom of belief more and more challenged. Something is afoot in world history at this moment, which seems to be encouraging governments to weaponise against specific religions within their territory, and that’s very concerning,” he said.

He referred to a global rise in anti-Semitism and in anti-Muslim hatred, which started before the 7 October attacks but had accelerated since. And, he said, persecution of Christians had continued and was widespread, particularly in China and Nigeria. In Nigeria, at least 8222 deaths of Christians in violence were recorded in 2023.

USCIRF’s latest report recommends adding Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam to the list of CPCs. This would be in addition to the 12 countries given the designation by the State Department in December: Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Azerbaijan is on the recommended list of CPCs for the first time because of the continuing repression and control of activities of faith groups. The US government has not, in previous years, awarded CPC status to Nigeria, despite documentation of persecution of Christians, and the two countries have a “strong bilateral relationship”, the report noted.

Designation allows the government to impose economic penalties on a country if religious freedoms do not improve.

On India, the report highlighted the clashes in Manipur a year ago against the minority Christian Kuki community (News, 15 September 2023), referring to gang rapes and forced conversions, and the anti-conversion laws in 13 out of India’s 28 states, which have led to hundreds of arrests. About 400 churches have been destroyed.

A spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Randhir Jaiswal, said that the report was “propaganda”, and that USCIRF did not understand “India’s diverse, pluralistic, and democratic ethos”. He accused the US of attempting to influence the outcome of the national elections that are currently under way in India.

USCIRF’s first report was issued in 2020, and focused primarily on Russia, China, and Sudan. The latest report said that China and Russia remain “among the world’s worst violators of their people’s religious freedom”.

It also recommends countries for a “special watch list”: one step down from designation as a CPC. This year, it recommends Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Seven “non-state actors” should also be added to a list of Entity of Particular Concern, according to USCIRF: Al-Shabaab; Boko Haram; the Houthis; Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham; Islamic State Sahel Province; Islamic State West Africa Province; and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, which operates in the Sahel region of sub Saharan Africa.

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