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‘Harshest levels’ of religious repression across 16 nations

Supporters of the Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) hold portraits of their president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey is identified for its high levels of religious repression. (Getty Images)

A US-based global report into religious freedom has identified high levels of religious repression in 28 countries.

In the report from the US International Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF), sixteen countries were designated as Tier 1 – the harshest level of repression: Myanmar, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

A Tier 1 country, the report said, is “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violations, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious. The State Department most recently made CPC (country of particular concern) designations in December 2017”.

Another 12 were listed as Tier 2 countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. Tier 2 is defined by USCIRF as “nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government during 2017 are serious and characterised by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’ CPC standard”.

These countries, USCIRF said, “represent the most pressing religious freedom concerns worldwide and the most promising avenues for addressing them through US foreign policy”.

Among the policy options the report recommended for the US government was to “press the country’s government to bring national laws and regulations, including registration requirements for religious communities, into compliance with international human rights standards” and to “press the country’s government to conduct professional and thorough investigations – and to prosecute perpetrators – of incidents of sectarian violence, terrorism, and other violations of religious freedom”.

A third category, Entities of Particular Concern, was reserved for Islamic State, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Al-Shabaab in Somalia as non-state actors.

Myanmar, China, Iran and Sudan have been designated as countries of particular concern in every USCIRF report since its first in 1999.

The annual report, issued on August 29, focused on three themes: advocacy for the release of specific prisoners, the use of blasphemy laws in place in at least 69 countries and which “should be repealed”, the report said, and women and religious freedom.

It also focused on seven “religious prisoners of conscience” in hopes of reducing the number worldwide of such prisoners and to highlight the conditions in each country that led to their imprisonment. One of the seven was the Rev. Andrew Brunson, who is still under house arrest in Turkey after having been jailed for nearly two years, and which has led to US economic sanctions against Turkey in retaliation for its refusal to free him.

“While religious freedom violations in many parts of the world continue to be grave, there are real reasons for optimism 20 years after the US Congress’ landmark passage of IRFA (International Religious Freedom Act),” the report said.

The report included seven recommendations for the Trump administration, and eight for Congress, to more fully advocate for religious freedom worldwide.

One recommendation for the administration was to “resettle vulnerable refugees, including those fleeing religious persecution, through the US Refugee Admissions Program and address the longstanding flaws in the treatment of asylum-seekers in Expedited Removal that USCIRF has documented since 2005”. USCIRF issued a similar recommendation for Congress:

“Exercise oversight of Expedited Removal and press for reforms to address concerns about the treatment of asylum-seekers in that process that USCIRF has identified since 2005.”