In a reflection of what observers say is clearly a worsening climate for religious freedom around the world, the Obama administration recently added another nation to the list of the planet’s worst offenders, bringing the total to an all-time high of ten.
In April, the State Department designated Tajikistan as a “Country of Particular Concern,” or CPC, a label the central Asian country now shares with nine other countries that engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” according to the State Department.
Worldwide, various measures suggest religious persecution is on the rise.
Approximately three-quarters of the world’s population live under government restrictions against or social hostilities involving religion, according to a study from the Pew Research Center.
“It’s a bad situation,” said Dr. Robert P. George, chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious freedom worldwide and advises the State Department on which countries to designate as CPCs.
“There are places today where religious minorities who previously enjoyed toleration are now victimized. We are talking about literally millions of people.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) makes annual suggestions to the Secretary of State to designate certain countries as CPCs when they are guilty of “egregious, ongoing, and systematic” violations of religious liberty, according to George.
The State Department designates countries as CPCs under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Severe violations of religious freedom can include torture, prolonged detention without charges, or disappearing religious individuals.
The State Department currently recognizes ten countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and now Tajikstan.
In Tajikistan, suppression of religion is ingrained into the legal code. The Tajik government “suppresses and punishes all religious activity outside of state control, particularly the activities of Muslims, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the USCIRF Report.
Particularly restrictive laws that were passed in 2009 and expanded in 2012 make Tajikistan the only country in the world in which persons under the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in public religious activities.
Restrictions are placed on Muslim religious dress and forbid anyone under the age of 35 from taking part in the religious pilgrimage of hajj. Some Protestant groups and Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot obtain legal status because of conscientious objection to military service and for refusal to stop allowing children to worship, according to the USCIRF report.
Often, when the State Department designates a country as a CPC, Congress and the president implement sanctions. However, sanctions or presidential action can be waived, often unconditionally and with no time limit.
This year, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan received no presidential action against them, “following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority,” according to John Kirby, a spokesperson for the State Department speaking at a State Department press briefing in April.
“U.S. actions or waivers against a Country of Particular Concern are part of a broader strategy to improve respect for religious freedom in that country,” said a State Department official speaking on background.
“Diplomatic engagement is an essential component to achieving lasting improvements in international religious freedom and can be used to convey the consequences – including the prospect of sanctions – if a government does not take steps to rectify its violations of religious freedom.”
But for George, such waivers mean that offending regimes have little incentive to mitigate the religious liberty violations that put them on the CPC list in the first place.
“I would very much like for those waivers to no longer be unconditional and without time limits. I think waivers when they’re granted, if they’re granted, should only be granted for very serious reasons,” he said.
“But where they are granted, they should be for a specified period of time and subject to certain conditions.”
Although George applauds the new designation of Tajikistan as a CPC, he believes more should be done to address religious intolerance worldwide, especially in Pakistan. Every year since 2002, USCIRF has recommended that the State Department designate Pakistan as a CPC, but the country has yet to be added to the list.
“I would like to see Pakistan get the [CPC] designation because there are people in Pakistan — Christians, the Ahmadi Muslim minority — who are being victimized, who are being persecuted, who are being discriminated against,” said George.
“Discrimination against [Ahmadi Muslims] is written into the very constitution of Pakistan, where these people are really denied full citizenship and they are punished if they call their house of worship a mosque, if they call themselves Muslims,” said George.
The bright spots for worldwide religious freedom are scant. USCIRF did not discuss Cyprus or Sri Lanka in its annual report due to improvements in those countries, but George sees little progress elsewhere.
“There’s not a single nation that we’re calling for removal from the CPC list,” he said.
“We’d love to be in a situation where we could call for the removal of some nations that we have in the past recommended for CPC designation from the list, but alas. The reality is what it is.”