NEW YORK – Over the past year the federal government’s global religious freedom watchdog has noticed an increase in religious intolerance, persecution, and discrimination around the world, and it is now calling on the Biden administration to step up and do something about it.

“In general, globally, we’re seeing freedom of religion and freedom of belief more and more challenged,” said Stephen Schneck, a Commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “Something is afoot in world history at this moment, which seems to be encouraging governments to weaponize against specific religions within their territory and that’s very concerning.”

Schneck spoke to Crux on May 1 after the commission published its 2024 report on global religious freedom, which assesses the religious freedom policy of the Biden administration in 2023, global trends and developments related to religious freedom in 2023, and also recommends countries for the State Department to designate as a Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) because of their engagement in, or toleration of “particularly severe” religious freedom violations.

This year, the commission also calls on the Biden administration to take more concrete actions, specifically in response to religious freedom concerns in CPCs, citing how the State Department “regularly reimposes existing sanctions or reissues waivers instead of taking any new action.”

“We’ve been issuing these reports for years and years, and we’ve been making recommendations for years and years, and we just want to move the needle a little bit more and we think the solution is to press the government to more stringently apply the tools that are already at its disposal to encourage countries around the world to better protect religious freedom,” Schneck explained.

USCIRF is the government body charged with making policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State, and Congress related to religious freedom violations. The State Department is not obliged to take USCIRF’s recommendations. The commission, created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, is independent and bipartisan.

In the 2024 report published on May 1, the commission recommends that the State Department designate Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam as CPCs, in addition to the 12 other countries the State Department gave the designation to in December – Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

A CPC designation, as outlined by the IRFA, leads the government to attempt non-economic policy options to end a country’s religious freedom violations, and impose economic penalties thereafter if the non-economic attempts fail.

Of the five countries that didn’t receive the CPC designation from the State Department in December, Azerbaijan is the only one new to the list. The other four countries were recommended by the commission in its 2023 report, but the State Department chose not to give them the CPC designation.

Related to Azerbaijan, the report states that USCIRF in 2023 documented an alarming increase in the number of prisoners arrested on the basis of religion or belief, with human rights activists putting the numbers conservatively near 200 by the end of the year. Authorities are also regularly accused of torture or threatening sexual violence to elicit false confessions from detainees, without consequence.

Documented situations in the countries designated CPCs by the State Department in December, and the new ones USCIRF recommends the State Department give the designation to include:

  • Over 152,000 Rohingya Muslims remained in government-run internment camps in Burma, and over 1 million remained as refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
  • 1 to 3 million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims are in Chinese concentration camps and prisons. Plus, nearly 1 million Uyghur children and 1 million Tibetan children separated from their parents and placed in state-run boarding schools for forcible assimilation.
  • 13 of India’s 28 states have anti-conversion laws, which restrict the conversion of faith.
  • The Taliban have imposed over 50 edicts targeting and suppressing the rights of Afghan women.
  • More than 150 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 240 Muslims are in Russian custody on unsubstantiated charges of “extremism” and “terrorism.”

The report also recommends countries for the State Department to add to its “Special Watch List,” which in essence is just a step down from a CPC designation that is reserved for countries that commit “severe” religious freedom violations. This year, USCIRF recommended the State Department add 11 countries to the “Special Watch List,” one of which – Algeria – was added to the list in December.

The other ten countries USCIRF recommended get added to the “Special Watch List” are Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

The commission also recommended seven nonstate actors receive the “Entity of Particular Concern” designation: al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, Islamic State Sahel Province, Islamic State in West Africa Province, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim.

In a broader sense, Schneck said there are two things the commission sees globally that’s of particular concern – the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred. He said it’s something that started before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, but has “just accelerated” since.

As for Christian persecution, Schenck highlighted the suppression of the faith that has continued to grow in Nicaragua and China. He also highlighted Nigeria, where 2023 was the bloodiest year of Islamist attacks against Christians with more than 8,000 killed.

Even beyond those countries, Schneck noted that Christian persecution remains “relatively widespread.”

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