WASHINGTON (CNS) — The 2017 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom added three “entities” to its list of 28 “countries of particular concern,” thanks to a law passed in December.
Islamic State, the Taliban and the Somali group al-Shabaab made the list in the report, released April 26.
Islamic State was faulted for its genocidal campaign in Iraq and Syria, while the Taliban got onto the list for its activities in Afghanistan, according to the report. The Somali group has undertaken random acts of violence against non-Muslims in eastern Africa.
The law allows for entities to be included if they “exercise political power, territorial control, and employ violence in pursuit of their political objectives,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, commission chairman, during an April 26 conference call with reporters. Islamic State, he added, is “one of the most egregious violators of religious freedom.”
Sixteen nations were designated as “Tier 1” countries of particular concern based on their level of religious repression: Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. All but Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam had been designated last October by the State Department as countries of particular concern.
Another dozen countries made the “Tier 2” list for their restrictions on religious practice: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
Father Reese said the situations in Egypt and Iraq are improving. “We see positive steps by the government of President (Abdel-Fattah el-) Sissi with engagement” of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, he added. “USCIRF remains disappointed, against a dismal human rights situation and increasing attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups.” In Iraq, he said, “although ISIS continues to commit genocide and ruthlessly targets anyone who does not submit to its barbaric worldview, the government has tried to decrease sectarian tensions.”
He faulted Russia for its treatment of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, there and in sections of neighboring Ukraine, “where Russia has invaded a country illegally and occupied it and now is imposing its religious restrictions, its very tough religion laws, in the Crimea.” He noted “problems for the Ukrainian Catholic Church there, and other groups that the Russian occupiers are not allowing to practice their religion.”
Father Reese said Russia’s status as a Tier 1 country was given before the nation’s supreme court April 20 banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has about 175,000 adherents and 400 churches there. Its status as a Tier 1 country, he added, was “confirmed, appropriately, justified and timely” by this latest move.
While the conference call was going on, the commission’s vice chair, Catholic pollster James Zogby, conducted a press briefing over USCIRF’s rejection of documents he submitted alleging repression by the Israeli government against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the occupied territories. Appearing at the briefing was another Jesuit, Father Drew Christiansen of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute, which sponsored the briefing.
Asked about the commission’s rejection of Zogby’s documentation, Father Reese said it did not receive majority backing. “If the commission is going to move on (a request), it’s going to require a majority vote of the commission,” he said.