(RNS) — A watchdog for global religious freedom has used its new annual report to call out the Iranian government for targeting women’s rights protesters during demonstrations last year. The report also points out the country’s “decades-long campaign” against religious minorities.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized Iran for repressing the religious rights of people of a variety of faiths — from Baha’i to Zoroastrian — and nonreligious communities and decried the use of violence against girls and young women who protested in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death. Amini, 22, perished after the country’s morality police detained her last year based on an accusation that her visible hair breached a headscarf law.
“While religious freedom conditions in Iran were extremely poor even before protests began in September 2022, they have deteriorated considerably due to the government’s severe brutality against Iranians peacefully asserting their religious freedom,” said USCIRF Chair Nury Turkel, during a Monday (May 1) virtual event when the 2023 USCIRF report was released.
“Iran’s security forces have shot and killed peaceful protesters, detained and tortured others and engaged in a systematic campaign of sexual and gender-based violence against not only women and men, but boys and girls as well.”
These circumstances were determined by USCIRF to be “systematic, egregious, and ongoing” religious freedom violations, which qualify Iran to remain on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs.
The watchdog has called for the redesignation of a total of a dozen countries as CPCs: Myanmar (which the department and USCIRF refer to as Burma), China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
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In addition to Iran, USCIRF drew special attention to violations it has observed in Cuba and Nicaragua, two nations that were added to the State Department’s list last year.
“In Cuba, religious freedom conditions in 2022 worsened considerably, with the government seeking total dominance over religious life in the country,” the watchdog said in its report. “Additionally, the regime in Nicaragua has sharply increased its persecution of the Catholic Church by imprisoning clergy, shuttering church-affiliated organizations, and prohibiting Catholic rituals.”
In its new report, USCIRF recommends five other nations be considered as additional CPCs: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria and Vietnam.
Turkel expressed the commissioners’ disappointment that the State Department had not listed Nigeria nor India in its recent lists of CPCs. He noted that parts of Nigeria are “hotbeds of persecution” and said the Indian government “enforces religious nationalist policies, including restriction on citizenship, religious conversion, interfaith marriage and cow slaughter” that negatively affect people of a range of faiths.
USCIRF Vice Chair Abraham Cooper added that, while the commissioners appreciate the efforts of the Biden administration and Congress to address religious freedom, they would like to see the U.S. government do more to address the most egregious violations.
“For example, we continue to urge the administration to use the CPC designation tool more effectively, as too many of the State Department’s CPC countries are repeatedly named as such each year, but results in little to no substantive change,” he said during the event. “Accordingly, we recommend that the State Department impose meaningful consequences on violator governments when it actually names its CPC list, such as by not reissuing the waivers based on other U.S. interests that have so far allowed Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to avoid penalties and other repercussions.”
Other commissioners spoke of continuing concerns about blasphemy laws across the globe and ongoing Islamophobia and antisemitism, especially in Europe. They also addressed the violence aimed at clergy and religious institutions in Ukraine since the invasion by Russia, as well as the destruction of holy sites there.
USCIRF also is seeking for the first time that Sri Lanka be placed on the State Department’s second-tier “special watch list,” citing “discrimination against religious minorities in the form of targeted arrests using problematic legislation and appropriation of land and property.”
The watchdog said two countries, Algeria and the Central African Republic, should be kept on the special watch list and Sri Lanka should be added along with eight others: Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan.
The State Department currently includes Comoros and Vietnam on that second-tier list.
Overall, the bipartisan and independent advisory body assessed 28 countries for its 2023 annual report.
USCIRF’s report includes other recommendations to the Biden administration and to Congress.
Among them was a request that the administration strengthen the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and “prioritize for resettlement survivors of the most egregious forms of religious persecution.” It also asked Congress to make USCIRF’s reauthorization permanent.
The watchdog, which was last reauthorized in 2022, has in recent years received official approval to continue within weeks of a potential shuttering.
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