Religious freedom leaders applauded the U.S. State Department’s recent re-designation of nine countries — and the inclusion of one more — as the worst situations for religious freedom, but urged the agency to do more.
After the State Department on April 14 added Tajikistan to its “Country of Particular Concern” list, keeping the nine countries already on the list, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it “welcomes the designation of these ten countries.”
The countries already on the list were Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Sudan.
A “country of particular concern” is a term used by the State Department to denote the countries that present the worst situations for religious freedom in the world. Either these governments “engage in” or “tolerate” “severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious,” USCIRF explained in its 2015 annual report.
Tajikistan, a Muslim-majority country in central Asia, was recommended to the list by USCIRF because its government has cracked down on minority religions in the country. The commission’s 2015 annual report explained that “numerous laws that severely restrict religious freedom have been implemented in the country since 2009.”
Restrictive actions include religions having to register with the government and ask permission for church meetings, heavy penalties for unregistered religious activity, and lack of due process for those tried under the country’s anti-extremism law.
Additionally, the State Department’s own International Religious Freedom report stated that “Tajikistan is the only country in the world in which the law prohibits persons under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities.”
The USCIRF recommended in addition that Vietnam, Iraq, Central African Republic, Pakistan, Nigeria, Egypt, and Syria be designated as CPCs, though the State Department declined to include them on the list.
According to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the administration can legally pursue a number of actions, such as economic sanctions, against CPCs to hold them accountable and pressure them to honor freedom of religion.
The State Department also announced it would no longer be sanctioning four of the nations currently on the CPC list: Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The decision was made “following determinations that the important national interest of the United States required exercising this waiver authority,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in an April 15 press briefing.
USCIRF responded by pressing the agency to take the actions against these offending countries as it is authorized to do.
“The CPC designation brings with it a unique toolbox of policy options to effectively promote religious freedom, and USCIRF encourages the Administration to use these tools,” Dr. Robert George, the commission's chairman, responded April 20.