WASHINGTON-The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended Tuesday that the State Department declare Iraq a "country of particular concern," a label reserved for nations with "ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom."
So far only eight countries out of 12 recommended by the USCIRF have received this distinction. If added to the CPC list, Iraq would join countries like Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, whose governments have been deemed guilty by the State Department of severe religious intolerance.
In Iraq's case, the commission's report cites "ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom" and "the Iraqi government's toleration of these abuses" as the reasons for the recommendation, adding that Iraq is "among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities." These minorities have fled Iraq "at rates far disproportionate to their numbers."
Four of the nine commissioners disagreed with the commission's condemnation of the Iraqi government, arguing that terrorist and insurgent groups are the ones being aggressive toward religious minorities, not the government.
"It's like saying 10 murders occurred in a major metropolitan area and accusing the local police of tolerating [them]," said Michael Cromartie, a commissioner who dissented.
The commission did not issue its report on Iraq until the eve of the Bush administration's departure, as well as the departure of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has appeared to walk a fine line between condemning the failures of the Iraqi government and asserting its success in garnering sovereignty.
"We're shifting into another relationship with Iraq," explained Nina Shea, a member of the commission, referring to the country's increasing sovereignty.
The report puts the State Department in a difficult position since it condemns not only the Iraqi government, but also by inference the U.S. government's complicity with the Iraqi government. The commission met with Rice to discuss the situation of religious minorities in Iraq before issuing its report.
"I think Secretary Rice has failed on this point," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., in his remarks at a press conference on the matter Tuesday.
Last year the USCIRF fell one vote short of recommending Iraq as a CPC. This year's report says that sectarian violence has in fact decreased in Iraq since 2007 but that conditions for non-Muslim religious groups have "deteriorated," with the attacks on Christians in northern Iraq city of Mosul in September and October as one example.
"You find the U.S. government not doing a darn thing for the Christians in Iraq," said Wolf. In condemning the Bush administration, he said he hoped the Obama administration would do a better job of protecting religious minorities.
Wolf also chastised the Western church for failing to speak out about the plight of Christians in the war-torn country. Aside from condemning violence toward minorities in Iraq, the commission called for more equal representation of religious minorities in the Iraqi parliament.
Countries on the list typically can face restrictions on aid from the U.S. government. How that will play out in a country where U.S. military forces and a diplomatic corps play a pivotal role in day-to-day operations is uncertain.