“United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: 2017 Annual Report.” Image courtesy of USCIRF

US commission: Russia a major violator of religious freedom

(RNS) The State Department should add Russia to its list of the worst violators of religious freedom, a U.S. commission declared in its annual report.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, founded to advise the federal government on the issue, comes out with its own list of shame each year, citing the most abusive countries in a lineup consistently longer than the State Department's.

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This year, the USCIRF report included a dissenting report from its vice chair criticizing the commission for failing to investigate Israel.

On Wednesday (April 26), USCIRF recommended that the U.S. should designate Russia as a "country of particular concern," for wielding an anti-extremist law to violate the religious freedom of Muslims and other minorities.

Stacks of booklets distributed by Alexander Kalistratov

Stacks of booklets distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses are seen during the court session on Dec. 16, 2010, in the Siberian town of Gorno-Altaysk, Russia. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alexandr Tyryshkin

Most recently, Russia banned Jehovah's Witnesses, labeling them "extremist" and ordering the state to seize their properties.

"They're treating these people like they're terrorists," said Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest who chairs USCIRF, referring to Russia's treatment of the Witnesses. "They're pacifists, they don't want to be involved in politics and they just want to be left alone. The Supreme Court has basically said they're illegal."

READ: Russian court bans 'extremist' Jehovah's Witnesses

Globally, "the commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations," Reese said.

USCIRF's list this year differs from its 2016 list with the addition of Russia, but also the dropping of Egypt and Iraq, a move that may surprise some given continuing deadly attacks on Christians in those countries.

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But Reese said that while violence against Christians in those nations remains a horrific problem, the commission wanted to highlight the concrete steps that both the Egyptian and Iraqi governments have taken to protect religious minorities.

On Egypt, for example, according to the report:

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi "consistently has made noteworthy public statements and gestures encouraging religious tolerance and moderation, has condemned sectarian attacks and assisted victims, and has urged reform of textbooks and religious discourse in society, an important shift in tone and rhetoric from his predecessors."

Still, Egypt and Iraq are on USCIRF's list of "Tier 2" countries, which are considered violators of religious freedom, but not as problematic as the CPCs.

James Zogby speaks to the Microsoft Political Action Committee on Oct. 21, 2010. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

On the same day of the report's release, one commissioner, Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, held a news conference to discuss his dissent to the report, in which he criticizes the commission's refusal to investigate Israel.

Zogby, flanked by sympathetic Christians in a Lutheran church on Capitol Hill, said Israel discriminates against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews but gets a free pass from the commission.

"I did not look for this issue, it came to us," said Zogby, who cited a lengthy study from young lawyers in the West Bank — occupied by Israel — that concluded that Israel fails to meet international standards on religious freedom on which other nations are judged.

Other commissioners, Zogby said, were "bullied" to oppose an investigation. Those petitioning for an investigation were often dismissed as anti-Semites and some commissioners feared the commission would lose congressional support for investigating Israel, he said.

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Joining Zogby Tuesday: the Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America; and the Rev. Drew Christiansen of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

Reese said many groups and people, including Zogby, propose that USCIRF launch investigations, but without a majority vote of the commission, those investigations don't go forward.

"Jim proposed it but he didn’t get a majority," said Reese, who added that USCIRF reports often include dissents.  

The following 16 countries are on USCIRF's 2017 list of CPCs: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia,
Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The 10 countries on the State Department's list of prime religious freedom offenders, designated in 2016, are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.


  1. The Russian Orthodox Church is a terrorist organization.

  2. RUSSIA one of the worst offenders when it comes to religious liberty? Ya think?

    Russia’s problem is that they’ve never gotten over the fall of the false religion, Communism! Every kind of moral infraction was not only permitted but encouraged, as long as it was done in support of the state! The Russian Orthodox Church has been unable to rebuild the moral foundations that were destroyed during several generations of Communist rule.

    What an opportunity for Christian missionaries to go to Russia and rebuild those vital foundations with the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

  3. 1) see what happened to the JW’s.

    2) The Russian Ortho church was complicit in the oppression of Tsarist Russia, supporting the virtual serfdom of the Russian people. It’s now back supporting The Puto, hoping to regain its former influence and wealth.

    There is a famous photo from a few years ago of a richly dresssed patriarch of the RO church. They photoshopped out the Gold rolex On his wrist, but forgot to photoshop out its reflection in the shiny table beneath his arm.

    They haven’t changed.

  4. “They’re treating these people like they’re terrorists,” said Tom Reese” They are in a way. They pull people away from the living God into deception.

  5. All religion is a form of deception with many different flavors. The revealing (and scary) part is that you do not support free speech (including religious freedom).

  6. You really need a new schtick Jim. Same comments all the time.

  7. No I don’t. Advocating free speech never gets old.

  8. except that isn’t what you are doing. While, denying Christ is free speech, it is not advocating such. blessings.

  9. UPA ukrainian is a neo-nazi organization.

  10. You’ll have to forgive the penguin here folks. He thinks the Russian Orthodox Church is actually Christian. The head of that church… that Saran worshipper Kirill, blesses the weaponry of Russian soldiers that murders Ukrainian women and children. It is s sick society

  11. You should not forgive this Nazi. He thinks the upa is actually Christian. The head of that organization… poroShitko, blesses the weaponry of ukrainians soldiers that kills women and children. It is s sick society and racist.

  12. Russians have a huge untreated HIV AIDS issue. Obviously the system is unfunded since putin has stolen hundreds of billions from the treasury
    Penguin here is obviously in the terminal portion of the disease where delirium is prevalent.

  13. Ukrainians have a huge untreated nazism issue. Obviously the system is unfunded since poroshitKO has stolen hundreds of billions from the treasury PufagtinenKO here is obviously in the terminal portion of the disease where delirium is prevalent. 🙂

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