July 4, 2017

US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2017 Report Details a Worsening Situation for Minorities Worldwide

Photo courtesy of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)


On 17 May 2017, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) presented their 2017 annual report. The 243-page document assesses violations of religious freedom in more than 35 countries throughout 2016 and up to including February 2017. The document serves as a set of policy recommendations to the US State Department. The overall conclusion is that the status of religious freedom is worsening in many parts of the world.

The Commission named a total of 16 countries as “countries of particular concern”, or CPCs. The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), passed in 1998 to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States, requires that countries be designated as CPCs if they engage in or tolerate “particularly severe religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.” Countries that don’t meet the CPC requirements can still be designated as Tier-2 countries, i.e. countries in which “the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” CPC standard.”

The 2017 report includes, for the first time, the recommendation that Russia be designated a country of particular concern. Russia has taken several steps throughout the past year to severely restrict the rights of religious minorities on its own soil. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the Crimean Tatars, a UNPO Member and a Muslim minority in the peninsula, are experiencing harsh violations of their basic human rights, including harassment and the deterioration of their mosques. Next to Russia, the Commission also recommends to designate the following fifteen countries as CPCs: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam.

While religious freedom violations in any of the above countries are severe, China stands out in both the scale and severity of the violations it commits. Among the religious minorities whose rights are violated in China are UNPO Members Southern Mongolia, Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The Chinese government, often under the guise of anti-terrorism laws, has taken increasingly harsh measures to enforce the one-China policy and to silence dissident voices. In East Turkestan, China imposed severe restrictions on the free practice of religion, including a ban on fasting during Ramadan. Meanwhile in Tibet, the Chinese government increasingly deploys Orwellian-style surveillance and manipulation techniques. Since 2016, the Chinese authorities have rounded up human rights lawyers, activists and religious figures in an “unprecedented, indefensible crackdown” on peaceful protestors. That same year, China imposed new fees on commodity shipments at a major border crossing between Southern Mongolia and Mongolia in response to a visit of the Dalai Lama to the region.

Pakistan is the geographic home to a total of three UNPO Members, all of whom remain heavily oppressed by the Pakistani state and affected by discriminatory laws such as the anti-blasphemy law. While the Pakistani government has recently taken steps to improve the situation of minorities, including the adoption of the Sindh Criminal Law Bill and the Hindu Marriage Bill, “forced conversions of Hindu and Christian girls and young women into Islam and marriage, often through bonded labor, remains a systemic problem”. As rightfully noted by the Commission, education with “discriminatory content against minorities” remains a key concern. In a 2016 follow-up to a 2011 study on education and religious bias in public textbooks in Pakistan, the Commission found that “while 16 problematic passages outlined in the 2011 report were removed from textbooks, 70 new intolerant or biased passages were added”, fifty-eight of which “came from textbooks used in the Balochistan and Sindh provinces”. While the report sheds some light on the situation of Sindhs and Balochs in Pakistan, there is no mention of Gilgit Baltistan, an illegally occupied region suffering tremendously from Pakistani rule.

In Vietnam, another CPC country, the Khmer Krom continue to be persecuted. Although Vietnam has allegedly initiated some steps towards improving the situation of minorities in the country by adopting the Law on Belief and Religion in 2016, the latter remains highly flawed and does not meet international human rights standards. In fact, some critics believe that the law will restrict freedom of religion in Vietnam rather than strengthen it, and instead “empower the Vietnamese government to excessively interfere in many aspects of religious life.” The Vietnamese government continues to target religious groups because of their faith, disrupt religious activities and/or arrest political leaders, activists and monks, including prisoner of conscience and Khmer Krom Buddhist Venerable Thach Thuol.

The Commission further suggests that Iran be designated a CPC, but unfortunately makes no mention of Iranian Kurdistan. However, Iranian Kurds are as much affected by the unjust distribution of resources and the state-sanctioned notions of mono-nationality in the country as Christians, Bahai’is and other religious minorities, including Muslims.

The Tier-2 countries account for another notable number of UNPO members, all of whom experience religious freedom violations in one form or another. As the Commission rightfully notes, the unstable situation in Iraq means a worsening of the situation of minorities in the region. This is true for a number of reasons, including the impact of ISIS, which the Commission names an “entity of particular concern”, or EPC. Nonetheless, the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are responsible for minority rights violations too. The country’s many minorities, which include “Catholics, Orthodox, Christians, Protestants, Yazidis, and Sabean Mandaeans”, find themselves heavily affected by the on-going conflict and their rights increasingly violated. In India, various Christian minorities, including the occupied territory of Nagalim in the northeast of the country, “reported numerous incidents of harassment and attacks in 2016, which they attribute to Hindu nationalist groups supported by the BJP.” Last but not least, the Lezghin, who constitute a Sunni minority in Shia-dominated Azerbaijan, face increasing harassment and persecution by the Azerbaijani state. Throughout 2016, the status of religious freedom further deteriorated in Azerbaijan as “the Azeri government increased its repression of independent religious activity, closing Sunni mosques, raiding religious bookshops, and harassing Jehovah’s Witnesses and certain Protestant communities.”

While the report sheds some light on the extensive reach of religious freedom violations in the world, as well as on the severity of these violations and the consequences that they have on the affected minorities, it only serves as a general overview. Seeing how the report comprises a large number of countries, it cannot account for all affected minorities, but instead focuses on the general situation of religious freedom in a given country. Nonetheless, UNPO welcomes the report for bringing to the US State Department’s attention the plight of religious minorities worldwide. The report comes as a shocking, albeit important, reminder of the significance of UNPO’s work.

The full report can be read here.