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US religious-freedom report cites deterioration in Russia

United States Department of State (DOS/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is proposing the State Department remove Uzbekistan from its “worst of the worst” list of offenders of religious freedom, while reiterating that Russia should be put on that list.

The independent, bipartisan advisory body created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom proposed in its annual report on April 28 that 14 countries be put on the “country of particular concern” list, a category reserved for those that carrying out “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom.

Alongside Sudan, the commission recommended Uzbekistan be removed as a country of particular concern, a move already taken by President Donald Trump’s administration last year.

Uzbekistan has taken “significant steps” to improve religious freedom, warranting its removal from the list of worst offenders, the commission said.

As improvements it cited an end to long-standing raids on religious communities and restrictions on literature, as well as the government’s announcement it would close the notorious Jasliq prison, which had held religious prisoners, including two who in the past had been boiled to death, the commission said.

Tashkent still remains on a special watch list, meaning there are still “severe” violations of religious freedom in the Central Asian country. Other countries on the USCIRF’s special watch list include: Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

The State Department has already designated nine of 14 countries on the list of the worst countries regarding religious freedom: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

But it has so far not followed USCIRF recommendations to add five others — India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

Russia ‘Gets Worse’

The commission said Russia — which remains on the State Department’s special watch list — saw a deterioration of religious freedom in 2019 with raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the abuse of vague laws and counterextremism justifications to target religious minorities.

“The Russian government views independent religious activity as threatening social and political stability and its own control, while simultaneously cultivating relationships with the country’s so-called ‘traditional’ religions,” the report said.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, the commission said Crimean Tatars were harassed, arrested, and even tortured under the cover of alleged extremism charges leveled against secular human rights groups opposed to the Russian occupation.

Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine also restricted religious freedom, the commission said, following a similar pattern as in Russia, while also privileging the Russian Orthodox Church over the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

In the North Caucacus, meanwhile, security forces arrested and kidnapped people with alleged links to Islamist militant groups and harassed Muslim prayer groups.

‘Very Negative Direction’

In another major recommendation to the State Department, the commission put India on its “worst of the worst” list of offenders of religious freedom.

India is “trending in a very negative direction,” USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said at a press conference.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government implemented a series of discriminatory policies in 2019, including an amendment to the citizenship law that provides a path to Indian citizenship only for non-Muslim immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

When a national register is completed, millions of Muslims who have lived in the country for decades could face detention, deportation, and statelessness.

“The national and various state governments have tolerated widespread harassment and violence against religious minorities,” USCIRF added.

Elsewhere in the word, China has rounded up 1.8 million Uyghur Muslims into concentration camps and women in Pakistan were forced to convert to Islam.

Secretive Turkmenistan was identified as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom, while the commission said Tajikistan’s “already dismal record” deteriorated.

The USCIRF advises the president, Congress, and State Department on international religious-freedom issues. Its annual reports are different from the State Department’s reports on international religious freedom.

The advisory body says its independence enables it to “unflinchingly criticize” both U.S. allies and adversaries.