Religious Freedom Watchdog For the First Time Urges Blacklisting for Russia

By Patrick Goodenough | April 27, 2017 | 5:24am EDT
(Image of the USCIRF report)

( – Declaring the general state of affairs for religious freedom around the world to be “worsening,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday called for the first time for Russia to be blacklisted.

At the same time, the independent statutory watchdog praised Egypt’s government for taking “some positive steps” despite an overall abysmal human rights record; and Iraq’s government for attempts to curb sectarian tension, even as ISIS targets anyone not espousing its ideology.

“Overall, the Commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,” said USCIRF chairman Thomas Reese, a Jesuit cleric.

In its new annual report, the USCIRF called on the State Department to designate Russia as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for egregious abuses, citing in particular its use of the “anti-extremism” law to target various faiths, most recently the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Not only has Russia “continually intensified its repression of religious freedom” at home, the report says, it has also expanded its repressive policies to territory of a neighboring country – Russian-annexed Crimea and the regions of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, where “religious freedom is at the whim of armed militias not beholden to any legal authority.”

The report noted that Russia has branded as “foreign agents” the two prominent domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) monitoring religious freedom issues, Memorial and the SOVA Center.

This marks the first time the commission, which has monitored Russia since its first annual report in 2000,  has recommended CPC status for the country.

Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), governments that violate citizens’ religious freedom or allow others to do so may be targeted for sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.

Currently 10 countries are on the CPC list – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The USCIRF this year recommended those ten remain designated, but counseled that they be joined by six other countries – Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. At the same time, it dropped previous years’ recommendations for CPC designation for Egypt and Iraq.

Since IRFA was signed into law, the commission and executive branches have frequently differed over CPC designations, with the case of Pakistan arguably been most glaring.

For 14 consecutive years from 2002, the Bush and then the Obama State Departments overruled USCIRF advice to blacklist Pakistan, whose government has long rejected calls to annul or amend what have been described as the world’s most notorious blasphemy laws.

“During the past year, the Pakistani government continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” the USCIRF report says, adding that at least 40 people have been sentenced to death or are serving life sentences for blasphemy, including two Christians who received death sentences last June.

The report also cites laws targeting Ahmadis – Pakistan’s constitution does not recognize Ahmadis as Muslims and its penal code criminalizes Ahmadi worship – forced marriages and conversions of Christians and Hindu women, and discriminatory content against minorities in in provincial public school textbooks.

And the USCIRF said the Pakistani government’s failure to prosecute or prevent sectarian and religiously-motivated violence “has created a deep-rooted climate of impunity that has emboldened extremist actors.”

Whether or not the Trump administration decides this year to designate Pakistan as a CPC, its annual reprieve could soon be a thing of the past: New legislation signed into law last December creates a second-tier “special watchlist,” for countries viewed as violators but not meeting the statutory criteria for CPC designation.

Any country added to that watchlist in two consecutive annual State Department reports, will thereafter automatically be designated a CPC, according to the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which extended and tightened up the IRFA.

‘Naming and shaming’

The USCIRF comprises nine unpaid commissioners, each nominated by the White House and congressional leaders. Its role is to advise the executive and legislative branches on promoting religious freedom in the pursuit of foreign policy.

Past years’ actions have seen controversy on occasion, such as a 2012 dispute over a recommendation of CPC status for Turkey, and allegations of anti-Muslim bias.

Outgoing U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom commissioner James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. (Photo: USCIRF)

This year was no exception. The news report includes a lengthy dissent by outgoing commissioner James Zogby, an Obama appointee, expressing concern about the way the USCIRF operates.

Zogby, a Maronite and president of the Arab American Institute, said that the commission has acted less like a bipartisan group of experts than “like a Congressionally-funded NGO that issues a variety of materials ‘naming and shaming’ countries that violate religious freedom.”

Zogby said “naming and shaming” has its place, but would only be effective if the party doing the “naming and shaming” has credibility with the party being accused of violations.

“Unfortunately, this fact has never been recognized or appreciated by some of my colleagues. As a result, our condemnations oftentimes not only fall on deaf ears, they may even make a bad situation worse,” he wrote. “This issue of credibility is especially important now that we have an Administration that includes individuals who hold shockingly Islamophobic views.”

Zogby also argued that in some cases the USCIRF fails to distinguish between religious freedom violations and “sectarian, regional, or tribal struggles for political power.” He claimed that in countries like Iraq and Nigeria, “[r]eligious conflict is not the cause of tension.”

He concluded his dissent by protesting the commission’s refusal to investigate the religious freedom situation in Israel and the disputed territories.

“The charge that USCIRF has a double standard particularly undermines our ability to effectively advocate for religious freedom in Arab countries, the leaders of which can ignore the substance of USCIRF’s critique of their record and instead dismiss us as hypocritical.”

In an “additional statement,” all of the remaining commissioners bar the chairman highlighted the strongly positive response they have received around the world to the commission’s “excellent and thorough work” and the value of its annual report.

“We have had occasional disagreements about which countries to cover and which issues to highlight,” the seven commissioners conceded. “However, we all strongly agree that religious freedom is a vital human right and that the work of the Commission is important to Congress, to the President and to the Department of State.”

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