For the first time in its two decades of existence, the federal government’s independent panel commissioned by Congress to investigate religious persecution worldwide is recommending that the State Department designate Russia a “country of particular concern.”
In its annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, named Russia among 16 countries that commit “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
The president officially has the authority to designate a “country of particular concern,” but the task is delegated to the secretary of state, who is given a range of “flexible” policy options to address the violations of religious freedom. The options can include sanctions or a waiver of actions, but the secretary of state, for the sake of U.S. interests, can decide not to take any action.
This year, USCIRF is recommending that the State Department again designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as countries of particular concern, or CPCs.
The six countries added to the list this year, along with Russia, are Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam.
Overall, said USCIRF Chairman Thomas Reese, religious persecution is getting worse.
“The Commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,” he said in a statement.
In its new report, Reese said, “the Commission calls for Congress and the administration to stress consistently the importance of religious freedom abroad, for everyone, everywhere, in public statements and public and private meetings.”
The report calls on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to designate Russia as a country of particular concern partly due to its continued use of its “anti-extremism” law to curtail religious freedoms for various faiths.
Most recently, the Russian Supreme Court banned the legal existence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Russia.
The USCIRF is a U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its commissioners are appointed by the president and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and the Congress.
There are 12 countries, USCIRF said, where religious freedom violations are severe but do not fully meet the CPC standard: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
A member of the commission, Arab-American activist James Zogby, issued a scathing dissent to the 2017 report, accusing his colleagues on the commission of whitewashing Israeli discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities.
Zogby, a 2013 nominee of President Obama whose term expires this year, told the Middle East news site Al-Monitor that the panel is betraying its original mission and harming its reputation.
“Because I value the mission, I could not leave without stating publicly my concerns with how this commission has operated,” Zogby told Al-Monitor. “I believe that we have not interpreted the mission correctly, and therefore we’ve not made a difference.”
A Maronite Catholic, Zogby accuses Israel of using religion to discriminate against its own citizens and Palestinians and of violating the religious rights of Christians, Muslims and non-Orthodox Jews.
Elliott Abrams, a former official in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations who twice served as a USCIRF commissioner, responded to Zogby’s charge.
“Jim Zogby has had one single goal in all of his criticism of the commission and all his activities when on the commission, and that is to attack Israel,” Abrams told Al-Monitor.
‘Securitization’ of religious freedom
USCIRF said it remains concerned about the “securitization” of religious freedom, citing Bahrain as an example. The Persian Gulf Arab monarchy is cracking down on the Shiite Muslim majority at the same time the U.S. administration is lifting human rights conditions attached to weapons sales to the country, USCIRF said.
Reese said religious freedom “should not suffer under the guise of seeking to ensure national security.”
Some governments have made efforts to address religious freedom concerns, the panel noted.
For example, USCIRF does not recommend Egypt and Iraq for CPC designation in 2017, as it had for Egypt since 2011 and Iraq since 2008.
“In Egypt, while ISIS affiliates increasingly targeted Coptic Christians, the government took some positive steps to address religious freedom concerns, although the rest of its human rights record has been abysmal,” said the commission.
“In Iraq, while the Iraqi government has sought to curb sectarian tensions, ISIS has committed genocide, ruthlessly targeting anyone who does not espouse its extremist ideology.”
The newly issued Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 requires the president to identify non-state actors engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom and designate each as an “entity of particular concern,” or EPC.
The three non-state actors ISIS in Iraq and Syria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Regarding Russia, USCRIF advised the U.S. government to urge Moscow to amend its “anti-extremism” law to prevent it from being used against peaceful groups.
Christianity Today noted the commission also cited Russia’s repressive application of its “foreign agents” law, which restricts missionary activity, and a 2016 anti-evangelism regulation.
Known as the “Yarovaya law,” it bars non-Orthodox Russians from sharing their faith outside official church buildings.
Christianity Today reported Russian evangelicals, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, continue to challenge the restrictions, resulting in arrests, fines and confiscated materials.
“They say, ‘If it will come to it, it’s not going to stop us from worshiping and sharing our faith,’” Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia and a former Moscow church planter, told CT last year. “The Great Commission isn’t just for a time of freedom.”