15 countries cited for religious freedom violations

Logo of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (http://bit.ly/10qxLXH)

WASHINGTON (RNS) It can be hard to come up with a list of countries with the most egregious records on religious freedom when some of the world’s worst offenders aren’t even nation states.

Logo of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (http://bit.ly/10qxLXH)

Logo of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain (http://bit.ly/10qxLXH)

For its annual report of violators, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom counts 15 nations where abuse of religious liberty is “systemic, egregious, and ongoing.”

But the commission, which was created by Congress in 1998 as an independent watchdog panel, also wants to highlight the crimes of non-nations, which for the first time this year get their own section in the report. 

“USCIRF added a special emphasis on non-state actors, as their violent actions are a growing threat to religious freedom,” said Knox Thames, the commission’s director of policy and research.

“Violence perpetrated by non-state actors against religious minorities and others who conflict with their world view is increasingly common, with incidents occurring in places as diverse as Pakistan and Nigeria.”

Somalia, for example, which doesn’t make the list, is home to al-Shabab, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that has brutally suppressed Christians and Sufi Muslims who do not subscribe to its radical interpretation of Islam.

“Somalis accused of committing crimes or who al-Shabab deems to have deviated from accepted behaviors are punished through stoning, amputation, flogging, and/or detention,” according to the report.

On its 15-nation list of the worse offenders, USCIRF includes eight that the U.S. State Department also considers “Countries of Particular Concern”: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.  

But as in years past, the commission wants the State Department to add seven more: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

This year’s USCIRF list is one country smaller than it was in 2012. Gone is Turkey, whose addition caused an uproar among Turks who called the designation unfounded and damaging to USCIRF’s reputation.

Orthodox Christians welcomed the 2012 designation after years of arguing that Turkey — home to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians — continues to shutter their seminary in that country and withholds legal status from many religious groups.

Thames said the commission’s decision against designating Turkey as a “country of particular concern” this year was unanimous. 

The nation can point to a genuine loosening of restrictions on religious communities, but “nevertheless,” the report concludes, “the Turkish government’s interpretation of secularism requires absolute state control over all aspects of religion in the public sphere.”

But the decision to “promote” Turkey to a country “to be monitored” struck several commissioners as too lenient.

Last year, it was “an error to place Turkey among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom,” four of eight commissioners wrote in a dissent included in this year’s report. “But this year’s designation has erred in the opposite direction.”

The dissenters want it to be designated a “Tier 2” country, just below the most concerning 15.


About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • The US is not in the list, interesting. They burn the scripture of specific others, insult their sacred figures, and dehumanize their followers on a daily basis. It is seen as human rights to demonize people (when they are already ‘the they’).

  • Israel made that list when the Commission had courage. AIPAC is about the same as the NRA and serves America’s interests equally well. Cross them and they will make you pay.

  • Wherever people or groups or Governments stop Christian missionaries converting people from other religion to Christianity those Governments violate religious freedom.. Funny USA… What r u doing in Iraq, Afghanisthan. U r not the saviour but u r the problem…

  • Come on man! That is totally wrong!! I am a non-Christian brown guy who lived in USA for 13 years. I had complete freedom to practice my religion with out fear. You have probably never been to USA. Don’t talk non-sense!

  • Yes. We would see countries like Israel, Russia, Uganda, etc. if this was a less Judeo-Christian list which blatantly aims to justify US foreign policy.

  • An Israeli is free to convert to Islam or any other religion, although it may not make him popular with is neighbors. I know of no Muslim country where a Muslim is free to convert to Judaism or any other religion. In most Muslim countries, one can be executed for conversion. Why are not more Muslim countries on the list?

  • The first officially atheist country in the world is a Muslim-majority country, Allan. And about your comment ‘an Israeli is free to convert to Islam or any other religion’; I don’t think that you are serious.

  • It is shame to take this report as a report from USA. There are countries where hidden genocide is taking place due to their religion. Ethiopia Government backed by USA and Israel is committing hidden massacres in Ethiopian Muslim. The government is forcing the Muslim to change their religion to unknown deviant sect called ahbash. For two years, the government killed hundred of innocent Muslims, more than 5,000 are getting tortured, hundreds of thousands are fleeing to neighbor countries.Muslims civil servants who refuse to change their religion are sacked and displaced. Thousands of Muslim university students and hundreds of university lecturers are sacked from the university. USA and Europeans delegate themselves were there when the brutal military forces was taking place against the peaceful Muslim demonstration during Eid al fatir holiday. Most mosques in the country are given to the new sect followers. Because, we are Muslim, there is no power in the world to stop the genocide. There is media to record what is happening in different parts of the country.
    USA backed by sponsoring ahbash preachers from Lebanon and proving technical assistance. It is shame for USA , shame shame shame shame,,,,,,,,

  • I doubt your Israeli. Why don’t you go to their country and see what they see, feel what they feel, and i hope you have the feeling of “Oh [expletive deleted] im surrounded by lots of countries that want to burn me because of what i believe”