Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

Religious Freedom Violations Go West

Image: STR / AFP via Getty Images

While longstanding offenders in Asia and the Middle East remain epicenters of persecution, Latin America and Europe occupy more space in an annual chronicle by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

For the first time, Cuba and Nicaragua are labeled Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), according to the independent watchdog. Its 2023 report also makes special mention of the religious rights of indigenous communities in Mexico, Chile, and Colombia. And France, Germany, and Ukraine are highlighted as examples where minority believers have suffered for their faith.

The report’s greatest emphasis, however, is monotonously familiar.

The commission recommends the US State Department relist Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as CPCs, in addition to Cuba and Nicaragua. Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam were recommended for additional designation.

Violations in these nations are “systematic, egregious, and ongoing.”

USCIRF chair Nury Turkel highlighted Iran in his opening remarks. The nation brutally represses its minority communities, he said, and this past year cracked down on protestors peacefully demonstrating against mandatory hijab laws.

Mahsa Amini, who died in custody, was the feature image of the 2023 report’s cover.

“USCIRF is disheartened by the deteriorating conditions for freedom of religion or belief in some countries,” said Turkel. “We strongly urge the Biden administration to implement USCIRF’s recommendations.” These include…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on May 2, 2023. Please click here to read the full text.

Christianity Today Published Articles Religious Freedom

3 Fewer Hot Spots for Trump-Biden Handover on Religious Freedom

Image: USCIRF, from the cover of their 2021 report

As a new administration takes over leadership of America’s commitment to religious freedom worldwide, Gayle Manchin believes President Joe Biden is “very aware” of its importance.

But given global developments, the watchdog work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which she chairs, sometimes feels like “treading water.”

Others agree. For example, an 800-page study released this week by Aid to the Church in Need concludes that 1 in 3 nations of the world do not respect religious freedom.

And in 95 percent of these, the situation is growing worse.

USCIRF, created to provide recommendations to the US government, released its 22nd annual report today. Its analysis identifies significant problems in 26 countries, down from 29 last year. It also marked a surge in worldwide antisemitism.

Following the commission’s advice, last December then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). USCIRF’s 2021 report recommends that new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken add…

Last year, Nigeria was added as a CPC by the State Department. How did USCIRF’s work contribute to the decision?

USCIRF has a unique ability to focus on religious freedom, while the State Department looks at the relationship with a country in balance. But they take our work very seriously, and know the research and credibility behind it. They watch, and when the information is overwhelming—and when they are comfortable—they will join us in a recommendation.

But I never question when they don’t. There may be details going on that we are not aware of.

So how do you interpret the State Department additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the SWL? Maybe they are not the most egregious violators of religious freedom, compared to others on the USCIRF list?

Both of these countries are continuing to trend worse. When we are able to travel again, these are nations we will reach out to for a visit, to get a clearer picture of what is going on. There is always a political aspect, from the government’s perspective.

But now that Cuba is without a Castro for the first time, there are things happening that may change. Of course, it could also be toward the negative, so we will continue to monitor.

What nations generated the most controversy and discussion among USCIRF commissioners?

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.


Cuba and the World Day of Prayer

World Day of Prayer Cuba

Today, Sunday the 6th, churches around the world will celebrate the World Day of Prayer, officially designated as the first Friday in March. The movement began in the 19th century, led by lay women in the United States. Today more than 170 nations participate.

But Americans may be surprised at the official program this year.

Two years ago the country of focus was Egypt, and I was able to contribute an article to Presbyterian Today. The choice of nation was made four earlier in 2010, before the onset of the Arab Spring, leading many to remark the selection was prophetic.

One might say the same about this year, with a focus on Cuba. At that time relations with the United States were still frozen; now a new light is dawning.

I am not certain when the program was written, but it contains nothing of the thaw. Instead, worshipers were asked to pray this prayer:

Forgive us when we have not created a genuine space for dialogue among those who differ from us; when we have not lifted our voices sufficiently to denounce an injustice like the economic blockade affecting the Cubans for so many years…

And later:

In Cuba, we pray that you transform the walls erected by the economic blockade into wide open doors that are ready to receive.

Perhaps this prayer has now been answered.

The Cuban World Day of Prayer committee did make reference to oblique ‘detention centers’ for undocumented migrants , and in the opening skit one elderly Cuban woman said, ‘My generation has kept the Faith despite much discrimination.’ But a Cuban child praised her school which also teaches her the Bible.

As Americans, we are used to thinking of the Cuban blockade as an essentially just aspect of our foreign policy. It began to stem the tide of communism, and continued to check a human-rights violating dictator.

Certainly the reality is more complicated, on both sides. But it is worth noting that Cuban brothers and sisters in Christ chose to frame the issue as one of injustice.

Today, therefore, let us praise God with them that doors have been opened. Politics is messy; issues are rarely black and white; there is ample room to disagree with the shift in American policy.

But as the Cubans chose to pray, let us join them:

Forgive us … when we have built up walls that have prevented us from giving reason for our faith and hope… Enable each of us to do our part in providing help for the suffering world around us.

Lord, hear our prayer.

WDP Cuba

As a postscript, the 2017 World Day of Prayer will focus on the Philippines. Will the choice again prove to be prophetic?

Then again, the 2015 nation was the Bahamas. Perhaps it skips a year. Take care Suriname.