WASHINGTON—The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report Tuesday, detailing the plight of persecuted religious peoples around the globe.
The 364-page report takes a new two-tier approach to the worst religious freedom offenders. Tier 1 includes 15 countries, eight of which the U.S. State Department has designated as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. USCIRF also recommends the State Department issue CPC classification to seven other nations: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett told me in a phone interview that the U.S. government should make religious freedom a higher priority, given it is not only a moral goal but also a national security goal to combat extremism. “Pursuing religious freedom helps solve those other issues,” she said.
The commission called on Secretary of State John Kerry to fulfill one of the requirements of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA, which also created USCIRF) and begin keeping a comprehensive list of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs.
Lantos Swett acknowledged the logistical challenge of creating such a list, but she underscored its potential importance.
“One would hope it’s not for political reasons that they’ve sought not to comply with this part of the IRFA law,” she said. “There are some countries where it would create political challenges [for leaders] if the American people had a clear picture of just how widespread persecution is.”
The public’s tendency, Lantos Swett said, is to focus on a few high-profile cases while not recognizing the large number of prisoners of conscience in countries such as China and Iran. She noted that in some cases, such as North Korea, it would be nearly impossible to create a comprehensive list, but that doesn’t mean the State Department shouldn’t leverage its resources to report what they can.
The commission also urged Kerry to extend existing CPC designations, which expire Aug. 18.
The annual report placed Kazakhstan into Tier 2 status (which replaces the Watch List in previous reports), and Turkey and Western Europe moved onto the list of monitored countries and regions. Lantos Swett said Western Europe may slip under the radar with its history of religious freedom, but “a very aggressive secularism is putting people of faith in uncomfortable positions.”
The USCIRF report, the 13th of its kind, provides the State Department with a variety of recommendations. Lantos Swett, who is hoping the commission can meet with Kerry, said USCIRF will continue to serve as a watchdog for the U.S. government: “We are and will continue to press the State Department, the White House, and Congress on these issues.”
Lantos Swett said it’s too early to know if Kerry will be more aggressive than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in fighting for religious freedom, but the commission was pleased with his comments on the subject during his confirmation hearing.