Religious freedom is in retreat worldwide, and for the first time Russia is among the world’s worst oppressors, according to America’s most prominent and influential scorecard on the issue.
The annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released 26 April, puts its case plainly in its opening paragraph:
The state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening — attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship — that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
The USCIRF report is the first since the U.S. State Department said in 2016 that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is guilty of genocide in Syria and Iraq. The IS campaign of brutality against Christians, dissident Muslims, and ethno-religious minorities, especially Yazidis, is part of its attempt “to bring its barbaric worldview to reality,” the report says.
IS has been in retreat since October 2016 when Iraqi, Kurdish and allied forces began pushing the militants out of their Mosul stronghold in northern Iraq. Nonetheless, the USCIRF report, which covers all of 2016, classifies IS as a non-state actor guilty of severe religious-freedom abuses, along with al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The 2016 edition of the annual USCIRF report, normally concerned only with the behavior of nations, is the first to catalog non-state forces who pose “a less official yet no less virulent threat” to religious freedom. The change, ordered by 2016 revisions to the 1998 law that created USCIRF, directs the commission to identify non-state entities engaged in severe religious-freedom abuses, and to classify them as “entities of particular concern.”
The report called the addition “overdue.”
“Entities that control territory and have significant political control within countries can be even more oppressive than governments in their attacks on religious freedom,” it said.
In its 2017 report, USCIRF lists 16 countries as the most egregious state offenders, one fewer than 2016. Among them for the first time is Russia, which USCIRF said was included “due to its use of its ‘anti-extremism’ law as a tool to repeatedly curtail religious freedoms for various faiths, most recently the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Russia’s use of the law to “securitize” religion is not unique, the report said:
Many violations of religious freedom do not appear to be aimed at religion. Violations can seem mundane, such as requirements for building permits or less mundane, such as restrictions on association. Nonetheless, they are violations of international religious freedoms and they are increasing in numbers and frequency. USCIRF also finds that many restrictions on religious freedoms are done under the guise of protecting national security. However, this “securitization” of religion is a double-edged sword.
The U.S. government, for example, is making it easier for the Bahrain government to buy American weapons even as the monarchy cracks down on Shia Muslims, the report says. Meanwhile, Egypt’s overall human-rights situation remains “dismal” even as it “is working toward positive progress on certain aspects of religious freedom.”
Egypt had spent six years on the USCIRF list of worst offenders, which it calls “countries of particular concern.” But the commission removed Egypt from the list in 2017 because of what is said were “improvements in religious freedom conditions.” For the same reason the commission removed Iraq from the list, where it had occupied a spot for eight years.
The 243-page report, which contains detailed examinations of religious-freedom conditions in the 16 “countries of particular concern,” 12 “tier two” countries, and eight others plus Western Europe, also links much of the worsening conditions worldwide to the use of anti-blasphemy laws, which are enforced most fervently in Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries. USCIRF said said the laws are ripe for abuse and “lead to grave human rights violations, embolden extremists, and are, in the long run, counterproductive to national security.”