By Dr.Aslam Abdullah
The recently released annual report on religious freedom by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom declared 14 countries as countries of particular concern. Besides, Burma, China, Eritrea, India, North Korea, Russia, and Vietnam, seven countries with Muslim majority population also make the list. They are Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
India is predominantly Hindu, Russia, Orthodox Christian, Burma, Buddhist, Eritrea, Catholic and North Korea, Russia, and Vietnam communist. This report makes one wonder why the world’s largest religious groups as well as those who have failed to live up to their own religious ideals of securing the freedom of others to worship their beliefs without persecution. In denying religious freedom to others, with the exception of communist countries, the governments of other 11 countries and its backed groups have always used the name of God to unleash violence on innocent and vulnerable minority religious groups.
It is an issue that must concern everyone who claims that he follows a religion. Every country included in the list has its own peculiar problem, but common to all is the inability of the power elites to secure the life and dignity of citizens who do not belong to the religion of the majority. It is the majoritarianism that dominates with total disregard for basic human rights.
Here are the major findings of the commission on each country designated as a country of particular concern.
The Commission recommends imposition of targeted sanctions on Iranian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations;
It presses for the release of all religious prisoners of conscience, including Youcef Nadarkhani, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and Robert Levinson.
It reauthorizes and ensures implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment, which aids persecuted Iranian religious minorities seeking refugee status in the United States.
The commission describes Boko Haram as an “entity of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by IRFA;
It asks the US Administration to enter into a binding agreement, as authorized under Section 405(c) of IRFA, and provide associated financial and technical support, to obligate the Nigerian government to take substantial steps to address religious freedom violations, including but not limited to:
It asks the Administration to enhance training for officials, the military, and police officers on countering hate speech based on religious identity, responding to sectarian violence, reporting on violence against religious communities, and holding accountable security officers accused of excessive use of force and other human rights abuses; • Increase conflict resolution programming and research to reduce violence and discrimination based on religious identity;
It recommends an increase in funding for security sector reform and rule of law programming, and include religious institutional actors in security and justice programs;
It calls for the establishment of an independent judicial commission of inquiry (COI) to investigate the Nigerian security forces’ ineffective efforts to protect vulnerable religious communities, including Christians and Muslims, in the north and central regions of the country as well as the killing of IMN members in 2018 and 2019, then publicly releasing any relevant findings including evidence taken from police reports and asks for the allocation of funding for programs that engage civil society, security, and official actors in inclusive efforts to protect places of worship and other holy sites.
The Commission redesignates Pakistan as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), and lifts the waiver releasing the administration from taking otherwise legislatively mandated action as a result of the designation;
It asks the Administration to enter into a binding agreement, under Section 405(c) of IRFA, with the Pakistani government to encourage substantial steps to address religious freedom violations with benchmarks, including but not limited to releasing blasphemy prisoners and other individuals imprisoned for their religion or beliefs.
It calls for the repeal of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws and calls for the enactment of reforms to make blasphemy a bailable offense. It suggests that accusers provide evidence and government should ensure proper investigation by senior police officials, allow authorities to dismiss unfounded accusations, and enforce existing Penal Code articles criminalizing perjury and false accusations;
It asks the government of Pakistan to address extremist rhetoric often preceding attacks on minorities, while protecting freedom of expression, and remove from education curricula any content discriminatory to religious minorities;
It calls for the creation of the National Commission for Minorities’ Rights as mandated by the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, and remove requirements for self-identification of religion on identity documents;
It suggests the imposition of targeted sanctions on Pakistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations; and it asks the US Administration to assign a portion of existing U.S. Department of State programs to help increase security for at-risk religious communities and houses of worship.
The Commission presses the administration to determine whether Saudi officials responsible for the detention and mistreatment of religious prisoners of conscience are subject to sanctions or visa bans under the Global Magnitsky Act;
It calls for holding public hearings in order to pressure Saudi Arabia to release prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, including Raif Badawi and his counsel Waleed Abu al-Khair, and work with like-minded parliamentarians in other countries to advocate for their release; and
It asks Congress to pass the bipartisan Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act, which requires the U.S. Department of State to report annually on religious intolerance in Saudi textbooks and efforts to remove this content.
The Commission designates Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as an “entity of particular concern,” or EPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by IRFA, rather than limiting the EPC designation only to its al-Nusra Front subsidiary;
It asks the Administration to provide assistance to support Syria’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities under the terms of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-300); utilize the resources enacted under the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-441), and release the full amount of the additional $50 million that the White House announced in mid-October;
It asks that the Administration must exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria while ensuring that neither its military nor FSA allies expand their area of control in northeast Syria, carry out religious and ethnic cleansing of that area, or otherwise abuse the rights of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities there; and
It calls for an expansion of U.S. engagement with and assistance to the AANES, including examining a potential sanctions exemption for only AANES-governed areas as well as contributing to efforts, through relevant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and like-minded international partners, to fund and develop local programs to promote interreligious tolerance, alleviate sectarian tensions, and advance religious freedom and related rights.
The Commission conditions U.S. assistance to the Tajikistani government, with the exception of aid to improve humanitarian conditions or advance human rights, on the reform of the 2009 religion law and the improvement of conditions for freedom of religion or belief;
It calls for targeted sanctions on Tajikistani government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations; and
It asks the Administration to press the Tajikistani government at the highest levels to identify and immediately release individuals imprisoned in Tajikistan for their peaceful religious activities or religious affiliations; account for the whereabouts of all prisoners of conscience, including those imprisoned on religious grounds; and allow international observers to monitor conditions in Tajikistani prisons and investigate the recent prison riots.
The Commission calls for targeted sanctions on Turkmenistan government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations; and ask to press at the highest levels to secure the identification and immediate release of individuals imprisoned in Turkmenistan for their peaceful religious activities or religious affiliations, and urge the government of Turkmenistan to desist immediately from the practice of “disappearing” prisoners; account for the whereabouts of all prisoners of conscience, including those imprisoned on religious grounds; and close the prison at Ovadan-Depe.