THE exhaustive 104-page Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published last week details violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief in 29 countries.
These are by no means the only countries to which religious persecution is confined – simply the worst in a long list of nations.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan, US government commission which monitors the implementation worldwide of the right to freedom of religion or belief, following international law standards, and makes policy recommendations to the US President, the Secretary of State and Congress.
Too often it seems like one step forward and two steps back. It is gratifying to see the report note that Sudan and Uzbekistan had made positive, although tentative, steps regarding religious freedom. Unfortunately even these hesitant steps have not been reflected elsewhere.
The 2020 report identifies 14 nations as ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPC) due to their ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ violations of religious freedom; five are newcomers to the roll of dishonour – India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam. It also recommends that 15 other countries require special monitoring due to their severe violations.
Of the 29 disgraced countries, some are of direct interest to the UK. Three are Commonwealth countries in receipt of largesse from the British taxpayer: Pakistan, India and Nigeria, whilst USCIRF recommends that Malaysia be placed on the US State Department’s ‘Special Watch List’.
Pakistan continues to be a blight. In 2019, religious freedom across Pakistan continued to trend negatively. The systematic enforcement of blasphemy laws, and the authorities’ failure to address forced conversions of religious minorities, was a severe restriction on freedom of religion or belief.
In one incident, nearly 200 Christian families in Karachi were forced to flee their homes due to mob attacks after false blasphemy accusations against four Christian women.
India is beginning to rival its neighbour Pakistan in religious intolerance. The report notes that ‘in 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault’.
During 2019, discriminatory policies, inflammatory rhetoric, and tolerance for violence against minorities at the national, state and local level increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities.
In Nigeria, persecution of Christians continues at a sickening intensity. As recently as the week of Christmas 2019, Isis-West Africa released a video showing the horrific killing of 11 captives and stated it was executing Christians in retaliation for the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.
Things are so bad there that there is a minority comment on the Nigerian section claiming that although some instances are mentioned, the report ‘under-emphasises the systematic, ongoing and egregious attacks against the Christian communities in the north and central parts of Nigeria’.
Nigeria saw multiple reports of criminal attacks on religious leaders and houses of worship. 2019 witnessed a surge in kidnappings for ransom and the killing of Protestant and Catholic priests. Fulani militia attacks continue to be directed on entire communities of Christians in Kaduna province. The government of Nigeria comes in for criticism for its weakness in responding to such attacks.
The only European country designated a CPC is Russia. During 2019, religious freedom in Russia deteriorated. The government continued to target ‘non-traditional’ religious minorities with fines, detentions, and criminal charges under the pretext of combating extremism. Russian legislation criminalises ‘extremism’ without adequately defining the term, giving the state considerable leeway in prosecuting a vast range of non-violent religious activity.
Putin’s Russia lays considerable emphasis on its Russian Orthodox heritage, but his regard for Christianity does not extend to non-Orthodox churches. Baptist, Pentecostal and other evangelical churches face continual harassment.
Russian law forbids sharing faith in homes, online, or anywhere but recognised church buildings. This is especially difficult for small evangelical churches, which often function as house churches. It is not surprising that evangelical Christians are ‘worried because they do not know how to profess their religion and share it with others without violating the law’.
Pentecostal Union lawyer Vladimir Ozolin commented that ‘most Christians sharing their beliefs on the street do not even suspect that they are violating the law. They learn about this later, when employees of the competent authorities begin fabricating the case.’
The Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin government exist in a symbiotic relationship, supporting and feeding off each other. Orthodox churches which do not acknowledge the supremacy of the Moscow Patriarchy can face persecution. Indeed, it is arguable that religious persecution has become a tool of Russian imperialism.
Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) has faced systematic persecution for its perceived ties to Ukrainian nationalism. This includes the confiscation of church property and the harassment of clergy and congregations. On June 28, 2019, occupation authorities seized and closed the Cathedral of Vladimir and Olga in Simferopol, the main cathedral of the OCU in Crimea.
When travel restrictions are finally lifted, we can be sure that British holidaymakers will be flocking to Turkey blithely ignorant or uncaring of the growing religious persecution in that country. Relative to other Muslim countries Turkey still has a high degree of freedom for Christians, but this is changing. With the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist party, Turkey has slowly pulled away from its previous position as a bridge between East and West and increased its persecution of Christians.
The litany goes on. All too often the UK supports these countries with generous and apparently unconditional financial aid, in deference it must be assumed to prior geopolitical relationships or economic interests. However, the failure to leverage it encourages brutal regimes and feeds an ongoing human tragedy that can be in no one’s interests.