Indian Muslims shout slogans during a protest rally against a new citizenship law, in Kolkata, India, on March 5, 2020. The new citizenship law fast-tracks naturalization for non-Muslim migrants from neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who are living in the country illegally. Opponents of the law say it violates India's Constitution and further marginalizes Muslims in this Hindu-majority nation of 1.4 billion people. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

List India as top religious freedom violator, says watchdog group

(RNS) — India, which recently passed legislation that experts say is detrimental to Muslims, should be placed on the U.S. government’s list of most egregious religious freedom violators, a watchdog agency says in its new report.

The Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December by the Parliament in majority-Hindu India, violates religious freedom especially for Muslims, said the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report released on Tuesday (April 28).

While the law gives Hindus and religious minorities from neighboring countries — including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — a fast track to citizenship, it excludes Muslims. An estimated 190 million Muslims comprise slightly less than 15% of India’s population.

“It showed the central government’s involvement in repressing religious freedom and, of course, the consequence of that can very well be millions of Muslims in detention, deportation and statelessness when the government completes its planned national register of citizens,” USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza told Religion News Service in an interview.


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India is not currently on the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern,” which cites nations that it determines have committed “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” USCIRF says it is recommending for the first time since 2004 that India be given that designation.

The 104-page report chronicled the progress and failures on religious freedom in 29 countries over the course of 2019.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2020 Annual Report. Image courtesy of USCIRF

The other two key recommendations in the new report are about two countries that USCIRF, concurring with the State Department, says should be on the department’s second-tier “special watch list”: Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The report notes “remarkable” changes in Sudan after the removal of former President Omar al-Bashir in April last year. “The transitional constitution no longer identifies Islam as the primary source of law, and it includes a provision ensuring the freedom of belief and worship,” the commission said.

Although the watchdog group said more work is needed, including the repeal of blasphemy laws, it recommends that the State Department put Sudan on its special watch list, an action the State Department already took in its latest designations in late December.

Uzbekistan, likewise, was recognized for “significant steps” toward religious liberty. “In August, in a move recommended by USCIRF, the government announced it would close the infamous Jasliq Prison where, in the past, two religious prisoners had been boiled alive,” the commission noted.

After recommending Uzbekistan as a country of particular concern, or CPC, every year since 2005, USCIRF now says it too should be on the special watch list, which is where the State Department designated it late last year.

In the past USCIRF has rated countries as second-tier concerns if they met only one of the “systemic, ongoing or egregious” criteria for designating violators of religious freedom but, starting with this report, it now places countries in the second tier if they meet two, as the State Department does.

The watchdog suggested the following countries remain on the State Department’s CPC list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In addition to India, it recommended adding four others: Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.


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In addition to Sudan and Uzbekistan, USCIRF agreed with the State Department’s listing of two other countries on its special watch list: Cuba and Nicaragua. The department also included Comoros and Russia at that level. The commission suggested 11 more for the second-tier list: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.

Maenza, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2018 as one of USCIRF’s nine commissioners, said the watchdog is urging the Trump administration to take specific actions against countries designated as the greatest violators of religious liberties. The report notes the presidential actions tend to be preexisting waivers or sanctions.

She cited Saudi Arabia as an example.

“They’re still putting out textbooks that continue to use language citing that Christians and Jews ‘are the enemy of Islam’; the way they treat their prisoners of conscience is really unacceptable,” said Maenza, who advocates for Raif Badawi, a blogger detained in Saudi Arabia since 2012 “for insulting Islam through electronic channels,” in her work on the commission. “There’s a lot of different things the U.S. government could work with them on to improve some of these conditions rather than just give them a waiver.”

Other key findings in the report include the commissioners’ citing of China not only for its in-country religious persecution of religious minorities, such as Uighurs and other Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Protestant house church members, but its pressure on other governments, including those in Central and South Asia, to target critics of Chinese religious persecution.

The commission also noted increasing anti-Semitism; greater penalties for blasphemy; and more frequent attacks on holy sites and houses of worship across the globe.