The majority of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom are found in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, according to a report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released Monday. The report’s introduction focused on abuses against China’s Uyghur Muslims.
USCIRF released April 29 its 20th annual report documenting the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. With the exception of Cuba— the only majority Chirstian country listed, other than Russia— all the countries identified as the worst offenders are located in the eastern hemisphere.
“Our goal is not only to call out the offenders, but to provide concrete actions for the U.S. government to take in working with these countries to get off our lists,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said in a release accompanying the report.
Each year the group identifies “countries of particular concern” using the criteria of “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations” of religious freedom.
Non-state actors are given the designation “entities of particular concern” using similar criteria.
Some of these violations include torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges; causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons, the report says.
Among the 16 countries designated as CPCs for 2019 are ten flagged by the state department in November 2018: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The list also includes six other countries: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
In addition the group identified 12 countries that meet either one or two of the three criteria for a CPC, placing them on the “Tier 2” list. These include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.
Among the non-state entities of concern this year, USCIRF identified the Islamic State, the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and, making their first appearance on the list this year, the Houthis in Yemen and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Islamist militant group in Syria.
The Houthis are a Shiite Muslim tribe that took control of a key territory and chased the president from the capital city in 2015, and Saudi Arabia and some Arab allies intervened on behalf of the opposing faction. Iran continues to back the Houthis, who are battling the Saudi-led coalition for control of the country, especially the strategically important port city of Hodeidah.
The resulting three-year long Yemeni civil war has left between 13,500 and 80,000 people dead and millions displaced, with an estimated 14 million or so people facing pre-famine conditions.
The report particularly highlights the plight of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. To date, between 800,000 to 2 million Uighurs— or about 10% of their population— have been detained and sent to “re-education camps” to be subjected to abuse and political indoctrination.
The report calls on the US government to sanction those in the Chinese government responsible for the detention of the Uyghurs. It also recommends the appointment of a special advisor to the president on international religious freedom.
The commission noted that while the Vatican reached a provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops in September, “nevertheless, repression of the underground Catholic Church increased during the latter half of the year.”
Among the report’s inclusion of commissioners’ “individual views” were those of Johnnie Moore, who called the Vatican-China deal “one of the most alarming incidents as it relates to religious freedom in the entire year.”
“Within days of the Vatican negotiating its deal, the Chinese used it as cover to embark upon the closure of several of the nation’s largest and most prominent unregistered church communities,” Moore wrote.
He believes the Vatican “now bears a significant moral and legal responsibility to help solve the problem which it helped created—albeit inadvertently—by providing China license to viciously crack down on Christian communities (as cited in this report), and by providing the Chinese government further cover to continue its incomprehensible, inexcusable and inhumane abuses of Muslim citizens in the western part of the country.”
“While I am entirely for direct engagement on these issues, including with the most severe violators in the world, that engagement must not result in these types of unintended consequences, as has been the case in China. The Vatican made a terrible mistake, which it must take seriously. This debacle must be dealt with urgently and seriously.”
USCIRF is a bipartisan commission that advises the President, Congress, and the Secretary of State on international religious freedom issues.