Jun 10, 2020

Freedom of Religion: China, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia and Vietnam as Countries of Particular Concern

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recently released its report on religious freedom around the world. Included in the report is an updated list of countries that USCIRF has recommended to be designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), which includes a number of countries containing UNPO members. Countries remaining on the list from last year include China, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia, and Vietnam, while India was added to the list in 2020. In addition, the USCIRF also kept a number of “Countries Recommended for the State Department’s Special Watch List”, which include countries home to UNPO members: Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Iraq, and Turkey. Algeria has been added to the list in 2020.


China was kept on the list due to its “[creation of] a high-tech surveillance state, utilizing facial recognition and artificial intelligence to monitor religious minorities”, as well as its introduction of a new regulation requiring religious venues to have “legal representatives and professional accountants”, which for many smaller venues (particularly in rural areas) are impossible to fulfill. Moreover, the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur and Tibetan religious minorities, namely the mass incarceration of between 900,000 and 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslims into concentration camps, as well as the “strategy of forced assimilation and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism”, make China a continued CPC.


In 2019, USCIRF found that “religious freedom conditions in Iran remained egregiously poor. As in years past, the government responded to calls for reform by systematically cracking down on religious minorities.” Furthermore, the Islamic government of Iran “uses its official religious interpretation as an ongoing basis for denying freedom of religion and belief to citizens who express dissent through peaceful protest.” The Islamic penal code allows for severe punishment for apostasy according to the Shari’a and the situation for LGBT people remains extremely poor. In June 2019, “Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed Iran’s execution of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community was necessary according to “moral principles.”


According to the report, in 2019 “religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) re-election in May, the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims.” Moreover, the Indian government “allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.” The fast-track to citizenship that excluded Muslims was also a point of concern for USCIRF.


USCIRF have recommended  Nigeria to be designated as a CPC because the Nigerian “federal government continued to detain the leader of a Shi’a minority group, the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), and violently cracked down on its members during religious processions and protests. In July, the government banned the group, claiming it was violent and annoying to society.”. Additionally, since the 2015 massacre of 340 IMN members, “no military officials have been publicly held accountable.” The report also highlighted the continued insurgency of Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa in north-east Nigeria as significant ongoing issues.


According to the report, Pakistan has shown a continued downward trend when it comes to religious freedom, as the “systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws, and authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities—including Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs—to Islam, [have] severely restricted freedom of religion or belief.” Furthermore, regarding Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, “USCIRF is aware of nearly 80 individuals who remained imprisoned for blasphemy, with at least half facing a life sentence or death.” Ahmadi Muslims have also had their faith criminalised, with many facing “severe persecution from authorities as well as societal harassment due to their beliefs, with both the authorities and mobs targeting their houses of worship.” The forced conversion of young Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist women to Islam and their forced marriage to Muslim men, often after being kidnapped, remains a key concern for USCIRF and one in which the local authorities are often complicit.


Religious freedom deteriorated in Russia during 2019. According to the report, the Russian “government continued to target “nontraditional” religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism”, a term which the Russian government criminalises without adequately defining. Moreover, in the North Caucasus, Russian “security forces acted with impunity, arresting and kidnapping persons suspected of even tangential links to Islamist militancy, and harassing Muslims at prayer services.”


In 2019, the USCIRF noticed no improvement of religious freedom in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government “continued to enforce the Law on Belief and Religion, which requires religious organizations to register with the state, and to harass unregistered religious groups.” During their September visit to Vietnam, multiple religious groups applying for registration reported that local officials regularly exceeded their authority by demanding information—such as congregants’ names—not explicitly required by the law.” In addition, USCIRF noted that in 2019 “authorities interrogated, harassed, or physically assaulted individuals affiliated with unregistered religious groups—including the independent Cao Dai, Khmer Krom Buddhists, and Duong Van Minh—when they attempted to attend religious ceremonies.” Ethnic minorities, including Hmong and Montagnard Christians, “faced especially egregious persecution for the peaceful practice of their religious beliefs, including physical assault, detention, or banishment.”


You can see the report in full attached to this article.


Image: USCIRF Annual Report 2020