Aftermath of suicide bomber attack on Kano, Nigeria, May 18, 2014.
Aftermath of suicide bombing attack on Kano, Nigeria, 18 May 2014. (World Watch Monitor)

If ever there were a year that made plain the importance of religious freedom, 2014 was it, according to the just-released annual report by an American government advisory group.

“By any measure, the horrors of the past year speak volumes about how and why religious freedom and the protection of the rights of vulnerable religious communities matter,” the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in its 2015 report, released April 30. “Those responsible for the horrors have made the case better than anybody can.”

“A horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion.”

–2015 Annual Report, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Among “those responsible,” the report made special note of Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Myanmar. The commission, which serves as an advisory body to the U.S. government, recommended that the State Department designate those five, and 12 more besides, as “countries of particular concern.” Under U.S. law, countries in that category are subject to sanctions or other “commensurate measures” meant to give religious freedom equal weight to other diplomatic concerns.

There are nine countries currently on the list, and in its new report, the commission recommends expanding it to 17.

Already designated as “countries of particular concern,” and which the commission recommends should remain on the list:

  • China
  • Eritrea
  • Iran
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Sudan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan

Countries the commission recommends adding to the list of “countries of particular concern:”

  • Central African Republic
  • Egypt
  • Iraq
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Syria
  • Tajikistan
  • Vietnam

The expansion of the list is justified in light of an especially perilous year for believers, the report said. In 2014, “a horrified world has watched the results of what some have aptly called violence masquerading as religious devotion,” it said.

In Iraq:

The rise of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” in June “is particularly threatening for the future of human rights and religious freedom in Iraq and the region. [Islamic State] espouses an extreme, violent religious ideology that allows for no religious diversity.” The Iraq government itself, the report claims, is guilty of torture and executions of Sunni prisoners.

Commission Vice-Chairman James Zogby dissented from the recommendation to add Iraq to the list:

“Did we do everything in our power, when we left Iraq to insure that the country was on the path to national reconciliation and inclusive governance? Since the answer is clearly that we did not, it is, at best, insensitive for us to now declare the mess we left behind a “country of particular concern.”

In Syria:

“By the systematic targeting and massacre of primarily Sunni Muslims, the al-Assad regime created the environment in which [Islamic State] could rise and spread, threatening the entire region and all religious communities that reject its violent religious ideology, with the smallest religious minority communities facing an existential threat.”

In Nigeria:

“In May 2014, Boko Haram garnered international attention with the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok….”

“In 2014, Boko Haram attacked Muslim and Christian religious leaders and religious ceremonies, police, military, schools, ‘non-conforming’ Muslims, and Muslim critics. It bombed St. Charles Catholic Church in Kano, a Shi’a Muslim Ashura festival in Potiskum, and the Kano Central Mosque.”

In Central African Republic:

“During their rebellion and after the March 2013 coup, Séléka fighters attacked Christian priests, pastors, nuns, church buildings, and other Christian institutions.” In retaliation, “the Anti-balaka (self-defence militias) have killed hundreds of Muslim civilians since January 2014.” The country now is largely partitioned between Christians and Muslims.

In Myanmar:

“Religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar continued to experience intolerance, discrimination, and violence, particularly Rohingya Muslims.”

At the same time, “Predominantly Christian areas, such as Kachin and Chin States, continue to experience discriminatory practices. Continuing the long-standing practice of removing crosses, in January 2015, the government of Chin State ordered the removal of a cross.”

“In January 2015, two Kachin Christian women who were volunteering as teachers with the Kachin Baptist Convention were raped and murdered in Shan State. …Those in the Kachin community believe the act was carried out by the Burmese army.”

Growing concerns about India

As it has since 2009, the commission has placed India on a list of “Tier 2” countries, where “the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and are characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ standard.”

In May 2014, India’s nationalist Hindu movement gained national power by electing a Bharatiya Janata Party majority to Parliament. Since then, a campaign of ghar wapsi — the return of Christian converts to Hinduism — has begun, and BJP politicians are promoting the idea of a national anti-conversion law. A half-dozen Indian states have their own versions of anti-conversion laws, which ostensibly are meant to protect individuals from being pressured into changing their religion, but in practice are regularly used to put legal pressure on Christian communities, especially in rural areas largely beyond the administrative reach of central government.

“India has long struggled to protect minority religious communities or provide justice when crimes occur, which perpetuates a climate of impunity,” the commission report said. “Incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased for three consecutive years.”