While there’s been progress in religious freedom on several important fronts, one of the world’s most populous countries has been singled out for increasing violations in this sphere.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the United States Department of State designate India as a Country of Particular Concern, joining extreme violators of religious liberty such as China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.
“India took a sharp downward turn in 2019,” said USCIRF’s 2020 annual report, released Wednesday. “The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. Most notably, it enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India. According to government officials’ statements, this law is meant to provide protection for listed non-Muslim religious communities — but not for Muslims — against exclusion from a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the resulting detention, deportation, and potential statelessness.”
USCIRF, which bases its report on visits to countries, hearings, meetings, and briefings, noted that India’s national government and various state governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity. The commission said they engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence against religious minorities.
On the other hand, USCIRF singled out two countries for progress they have made and noted that the nations worked closely with the commission to improve their records.
“We are encouraged by the positive steps some governments took in 2019 — particularly two that engaged closely with USCIRF — to establish a safer environment for freedom of religion or belief,” USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said in a statement. “Sudan stands out, demonstrating that new leadership with the will to change can quickly bring tangible improvements. Uzbekistan also made important progress in 2019 toward fulfilling the commitments it made to allow religious groups greater freedom. Though other countries deteriorated, particularly India, we see international religious freedom on an upward trajectory overall.”
In addition to India, USCIRF recommends 13 other countries for designation as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations.” These include nine that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2019 — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan — as well as four others: Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
Instead of using its own “Tier 2” category, as in past reports, the 2020 report also recommends 15 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) for severe violations. These include four that the State Department placed on that list in December 2019 — Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan — as well as 11 others: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey. USCIRF had recommended Sudan, Uzbekistan, and CAR for CPC designation in its 2019 Annual Report; the SWL recommendations this year are based on improved conditions in those countries.
The report further recommends to the State Department six non-state actors for designation as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations. These consist of five groups that the State Department designated in December 2019 — al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthis in Yemen, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan — plus one other: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS or the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant”) traces its beginnings to the outset of the Syrian civil war, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The commission also had words of praise for the Trump Administration for its record on promoting religious liberty.
“We commend the Administration for continuing to prioritize international religious freedom in 2019, including dedicating a significant amount of U.S. funding to protect places of worship and religious sites globally, a key recommendation in USCIRF’s 2019 Annual Report. We were also encouraged that in early 2020, the Administration established for the first time a senior staff position at the White House focused solely on international religious freedom, a long-standing USCIRF recommendation,” USCIRF Vice Chairwoman Gayle Manchin stated. “While we welcome these efforts, we also urge the Administration to discontinue the repeated imposition of preexisting sanctions or waivers for CPC-designated countries, and instead, take a unique action for each country to provide accountability for religious freedom abuses.”