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Report: ‘Tremendous Progress’ Ahead for Religious Freedom Worldwide

USCIRF 2020

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on April 28, 2020.

A new report aims to “unflinchingly criticize the records of US allies and adversaries alike” on religious freedom.

And there’s a lot to report, with more headlines each month confirming the Pew Research Center’s 10-year analysis that government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion have reached record levels worldwide.

Today’s 21st annual report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) identifies significant problems in 29 countries—but sees “an upward trajectory overall.”

“Our awareness is going to grow greater, and the problem will appear more pronounced,” USCIRF chair Tony Perkins told CT. “But as we continue to work on it, I think we will see tremendous progress in the next few years if we stay the present course.”

Created as an independent, bipartisan federal commission by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, USCIRF casts a wider net than the US State Department, which annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for such nations’ violations of religious freedom, or places them on a Special Watch List (SWL) if less severe.

Last December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced CPC status for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

USCIRF now recommends adding India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

And where the State Department put only Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan on the watch list, USCIRF recommends also including Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.

USCIRF’s mandate is to provide oversight and advice to the State Department. Aiming to make its recommendations more easily accessible to policymakers, this year’s report limits country chapters to two pages each and adopts the same evaluative criteria as the State Department.

To qualify, a nation must engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” violations of religious freedom. CPC status requires all three descriptors, while SWL status requires two.

In previous reports, USCIRF used a “Tier Two” category requiring only one qualifier. As a result, Laos is no longer listed.

Following 11 commission field visits, 5 hearings, and 19 other published reports, USCIRF’S 2020 annual report calls attention to religious freedom violations against all faiths, including:

  • 1.8 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps
  • 171 Eritrean Christians arrested while gathering for worship
  • 50,000 Christians held in North Korean prison camps
  • 260 incidents of religious freedom violations in Cuba
  • 489 raids conducted against homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia
  • 910,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh
  • 1 million Muslim residents excluded from the National Register of Citizens in India
  • 37 Shi’a Muslim protesters executed in Saudi Arabia
  • 5,000 Baptist calendars burned by authorities in Turkmenistan

Perkins spoke with CT about how nations move up (e.g., India and Nigeria) or down (e.g. Sudan and Uzbekistan) between lists, why the State Department doesn’t accept all of USCIRF’s recommendations (but should), and whether he has hope for the future with violations at “a historical high in modern times.”

Roughly how many countries are on your studied list?

The ones that are listed are the ones that we look at. There has been discussion if we should add Venezuela. There have been a couple of others we have considered.

Examining “Country X,” how do you evaluate if and where it belongs on your lists?

First, we begin with the statutory definition of a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our mandate is to identify countries with systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom—whether it engages in or tolerates such behavior.

One thing to be cautious of is that we don’t rank countries. It is not a comparison. Country X and Country Y may both be CPC-listed, but be miles apart on the egregious nature of their violations. We look at each country separately.

It is based upon reporting that we can validate and verify; visits that we make to these countries; and hearings we hold with expert witnesses to come in and testify. It is a combination of factors, and quite frankly it is subjective.

We try to make it as objective as possible, but it is hard to quantify some things—though we do so to the degree we can.

What happens if you disagree about the designations?

The nine commissioners…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

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Sudan Lets Christians March for Jesus Again

Religion Sudanese Christians
In this Monday, Dec. 23, 2019 photo, Christians march through the streets to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Khartoum Bahri, Sudan, north of the capital Khartoum. More than eight months after the army forced out long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who upheld harsh interpretations of Islamic laws, Sudanese Christians are hoping for more religious freedom. (AP Photo/Mohamed Okasha)

This article was first published at Christianity Today, on December 28, 2019.

“Hallelujah! Today, we are happy that the Sudanese government has opened up the streets for us so we can express our faith,” said Izdhar Ibrahim, one of the marchers. Some Christians had been frightened before “because we used to encounter difficulties.”

The changes started in 2011, after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan following a long war and a referendum. South Sudan is mostly Christian and animist, a belief that all objects have a spirit. Al-Bashir’s government then escalated its pressure on the remaining Christians, human-rights campaigners and Christians say.

Al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, failed to keep the peace in the religiously and ethnically diverse country.

Noah Manzul, one of the church elders, said the march was treated almost as if it were a “crime.”

Its return is “an expression of religious freedom,” Manzul said. “We can live our lives with ease.”

Manzul’s social work with homeless children and orphans got him into trouble under al-Bashir, when he was accused of trying to convert the children to Christianity, an allegation he denies. Activities like singing hymns in the teeming market outside the church were stopped, he said.

To be sure, some Christians said they were not impacted negatively by al-Bashir’s government, and officials at the time disputed that the government targeted Christians.

But Suliman Baldo, senior adviser at the Enough Project, which supports peace and an end to atrocities in Africa’s conflict zones, said the ultimate goal under al-Bashir was “to limit the influence of the church.” Under his rule, Christian church properties could be seized, Baldo said, adding some churches were demolished, and some preachers were arrested.

During past holiday seasons, many recalled, posters would appear on the streets warning against celebrating with the kofar, or infidels, a reference to Christians.

Now, the constitutional declaration that guides this transitional period no longer refers to Islam as the primary source of legislation in Sudan. A Christian woman was appointed to the nation’s interim ruling Sovereign Council.

And December 25 was declared…

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, to which I contributed additional reporting.

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11 Nigerian Christians Executed in ISIS Christmas Video

Nigerian Christians
(Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis.)

This article was first published by Christianity Today on December 28, 2019.

In another filmed massacre, 11 Nigerian Christians were executed by the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) over the Christmas holiday.

Wearing the orange jumpsuits made familiar by similar executions of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya, the first Nigerian victim was shot in the head by the black-clad terrorists who then slit the throats of the remaining ten. It is understood to be the largest group killed by ISWAP, a Boko Haram splinter group, so far.

“This message is to the Christians in the world,” stated the 56-second propaganda video, released December 26, in both Arabic and Hausa, according to The New York Times.

“Those who you see in front of us are Christians, and we will shed their blood as revenge for the two dignified sheikhs.”

The reference is to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former ISIS caliph killed by US troops in an October raid in Syria, and Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, his purported successor, who was killed the next day.

The video offered no information about the victims, other than that they were recently seized in Nigeria’s northwest Borno state. But an earlier video was released by ISWAP in which captured aid workers appealed to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as to the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).

Four aid workers were killed by ISWAP earlier this month. Dozens of others are believed to still be in captivity, including Leah Sharibu, a teenage girl kidnapped almost two years ago whose perseverance under pressure has inspired Nigerian Christians.

The International Crisis Group estimates the jihadist group consists of between 3,500 and 5,000 fighters.

“These agents of darkness are enemies of our common humanity, and they don’t spare any victim, whether they are Muslims or Christians,” stated Buhari, according to al-Jazeera.

Nigeria’s population of 200 million is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians.

Muslim victims have been many, agreed CAN in an earlier statement. But it stated the widespread killing in Nigeria’s north has predominately targeted Christians, who make up 95 percent of those currently detained by jihadists.

“The government has been paying lip service towards securing their freedom,” stated CAN, mentioning in particular…

Please click here to read this article at Christianity Today.