Commission identifies Russia as major violator of religious freedom

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

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WASHINGTON (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—comes out with its list of shame each year, citing the most abusive countries in a lineup consistently longer than the State Department’s.

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

Designated Russia a country of particular concern

The commission recommended the United States 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.

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 the commission, 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 (Russian) Supreme Court has basically said they’re illegal.”

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.

Iraq and Egypt not included on list

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

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

Inn Egypt, for example, 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,” according to the report.

Still, Egypt and Iraq are on the commission’s list of “Tier 2” countries, which are considered violators of religious freedom, but not as problematic as the countries of particular concern.

Commissioner faults group for not critiquing Israel

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 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 dismissed as anti-Semites, and some commissioners feared the commission would lose congressional support for investigating Israel, he said.

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

Many groups and individuals, including Zogby, propose the commission launch investigations, Reese said, but without a majority vote of commissioners, those investigations don’t go forward.

“Jim proposed it, but he didn’t get a majority,” said Reese, who added the commission reports often include dissents.  

Worst offenders identified

Sixteen countries are on the 2017 list of countries of particular concern: 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.

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