USCIRF Reports on the Threats to International Religious Freedom

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On May 1, the 2023 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report was released and provided an assessment of the state of religious freedom in countries around the world. Upon the report’s release, USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel said, “[The] USCIRF is disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries.”

The report recommended the countries that should be designated by the Secretary of State as the world’s worst violators of religious freedom and provided supporting evidence.

Nations that have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom” fall under one of two U.S. Department of State classifications – Countries of Particular Concern and Special Watch List Countries.

Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) are the most virulent suppressors of the right to worship freely, whereas Special Watch List (SWL) countries similarly deny the free exercise of faith, but don’t meet all the criteria of CPCs. 

In the latest USCIRF report, Cuba and Nicaragua were recommended to be designated as CPCs. 

The previous USCIRF report, released in April 2022, recommended that both countries be included on the U.S. Department of State’s SWL. However, in both nations, conditions for religious freedom deteriorated so significantly throughout the course of the year that Secretary of State Antony Blinken correctly designated Cuba and Nicaragua as CPCs in December 2022. 

USCIRF noted these developments in the 2023 report, and wrote that in Cuba, the government “tightly controlled religious activity through surveillance, harassment of religious leaders and laypeople, forced exile, fines, and ill treatment of religious prisoners of conscience.”

Additionally, Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs relentlessly targeted and oppressed journalists reporting on the dire religious freedom conditions, in addition to religious leaders and groups that participate in unsanctioned religious practices.

In Nicaragua, the report noted that religious freedom conditions “worsened considerably.”

President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo are severely persecuting the Catholic Church, targeting clergy, eliminating Church-affiliated organizations, and restricting religious observances.

Last year was the first year that Catholic clergy were thrown into prison by the regime. Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a prominent and outspoken critic of the dictatorship, is among the regime’s most recent targeted victims.

In February, the regime attempted to force Bishop Álvarez into exile, along with hundreds of other political prisoners. But Bishop Álvarez refused to leave and remained in Nicaragua, where he was stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to more than 26 years in prison for allegedly being a traitor.

Additionally, USCIRF added Sri Lanka to its list of recommended SWL countries for the first time. USCIRF determined that conditions on the island nation last year were progressing along a “worrying trajectory.” 

According to the Commission’s report, the Sri Lankan government engaged in discrimination and issued “problematic legislation” targeting religious minorities, namely Muslims and Hindus, as well as attempted to expropriate their property. 

The Biden administration’s designations will be issued later this year. Although the Commission’s findings inform these decisions, the Biden State Department has not always followed USCIRF recommendations for CPC and SWL designations, despite evidence of clear and abhorrent religious freedom violations.

Nigeria was designated for the first time as a CPC by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2020. However, in November 2021, ahead of a visit to Nigeria, Secretary Blinken removed Nigeria’s designation as a CPC and did not include it on the SWL.

For defenders of religious freedom, this decision by the Biden administration was an outrage.

USCIRF Chair Turkel said after the administration’s designations were released in December 2022 that there was “no justification” for its “failure” to designate Nigeria, and added, “The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations.” 

Though the Commission noted in its latest report that some officials attempted to combat the causes undermining Nigerians’ free exercise of faith, others “actively infringed” upon this fundamental human right. In 2022, “both state and nonstate actors [committed] particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” USCIRF concluded, while “Criminal activity and violent armed group incidents impacting religious freedom worsened.”

In Afghanistan, which was not designated as a CPC by Secretary Blinken last year, USCIRF wrote that religious freedom conditions continued to decline, which had been the case since the Taliban’s seizure of power in 2021. 

The Commission recommended that Afghanistan be designated as a CPC in both the 2022 and the 2023 annual reports due to the Taliban’s “deeply repressive and intolerant” rule, yet the Biden State Department only designated the terrorist group as an Entity of Particular Concern last year.

As USCIRF Vice Chair Abraham Cooper noted, such an omission of Afghanistan from the U.S. Department of State’s CPC list, “does not reflect the reality that the group is the de facto government of the country.”

It remains to be seen if the Biden administration will refuse to designate these nations as the world’s worst violators of religious freedom in accordance with USCIRF’s latest recommendations. However, the Biden administration’s designations must be based upon the reality of religious freedom violations, rather than scoring political points.

The country designations recommended in the 2023 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report must be implemented and enforced.