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US State Department adds Russia to register of world’s ‘worst violators’ of religious freedom

Qolşärif Mosque (Gontzal86/WikiCommons)

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

The U.S. State Department has officially added Russia to its register of the world’s “worst violators” of religious freedom, a list that includes Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and five other countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan, independent body created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom, proposed in its annual report released on April 21 that Russia, India, Syria, and Vietnam be put on the “countries of particular concern” list, a category reserved for those countries that carry out “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedoms.

On November 17, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that, of those four countries, he would be adding Russia to the list. Neither India, Syria, or Vietnam were designated as “countries of particular concern.”

The blacklisting paves the way for sanctions if the countries included do not improve their records.

The State Department added four countries to its special watch list, meaning there are still “severe” violations of religious freedom there, including Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

The State Department did not follow through on USCIRF’s recommendation to add Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan to the list.

“We will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses,” Blinken said in a November 17 statement.

In its April report, the USCIRF said that “religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated” last year, with the government targeting religious minorities deemed as “nontraditional” with fines, detentions, and criminal charges.

For decades, religious minorities like Jehovah’s Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.

A total of 188 criminal cases alone were brought against the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, while there were 477 raids and searches of members’ homes, with raids and interrogations including “instances of torture that continue to go uninvestigated and unpunished,” the April report said.

Russia has continued to crack down on Jehovah’s Witnesses since then.

A court in the southwestern city of Astrakhan on October 26 sentenced four Jehovah’s Witnesses to lengthy prison terms for creating or taking part in an extremist group.

Earlier that month, a court in the southern city of Krasnodar sentenced a 59-year-old disabled Jehovah’s Witness to four years in prison for holding a Bible study with fellow believers.