On Thursday, the Department of State published its list of countries designated as the worst offenders of religious liberty. Among those not making the cut, however, were Pakistan, Russia, and Vietnam, all three of which have come under fire by advocates of religious freedom.

According to the State Department list, the countries of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were labeled as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC). This list is unchanged from last year.

Pakistan was was placed on “Special Watch List:” a new category below that of “Countries of Particular Concern.”

For a country to be labeled a CPC, the State Department must determine that it engages in “systemic, ongoing, [and] egregious” violations of religious freedom. On the other hand, the countries on the “Special Watch List” are those that “engage in or tolerate severe violations” of a lesser degree than the Countries of Particular Concern. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) praised the inclusion of the 10 CPC counties, but declared that several others should have been added. The USCIRF had  the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria, Russia, and Vietnam should have been added to the list of CPCs, while Pakistan also deserved to be on the CPC list rather than the lower designation of “Special Watch List.”

“The designation of these countries is a key step in ensuring continued U.S. engagement in support of international religious freedom. Although USCIRF agrees with the 10 countries on the State Department’s list, it does not go far enough,” said Daniel Mark, chairman of the commission, in a press release. The USCIRF is a government commission created in 1998 to study religious liberty around the world,

USCIRF Chairman Mark said it was a “surprise and disappointment” that Pakistan was not added to the list of CPCs, which was published during the week that President Donald Trump strong criticisms of the Muslim-majority nation. Pakistan is well-known for its state-sponsored discrimination, based on Islamic religious law, against religious minority groups. Under Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws various persons have been jailed. In 2011, Asia Bibi -- a Christian woman -- was sentenced to death by a Pakistani judge after her conviction on anti-blasphemy charges. If the sentence is carried out, the 36-year-old woman will be the first to be lawfully executed for breaking the anti-blasphemy law. However, extrajudicial killings of Christians and Hindus accused of break the anti-blasphemy laws is fairly common.

In early 2013, a mob of more than 3,000 Muslims attacked 150 Christians in the "Joseph Colony" of the Lahore District in Badami Bagh in Pakistan. The Christians' homes and shops were burned. Police were accused of standing by while the marauders destroyed private property and drove the Christians out of the area. The riots were sparked when a Christian man was accused of blaspheming Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

About 10 years ago, Vietnam was taken off the list of Countries of Particular Concern, despite USCIRF’s opposition. It has continously called for Vietnam to be placed back on the CPC list. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) questioned why Vietnam is not on the list of CPCs. He contends that Vietnam has regularly violated both religious liberty and other human rights and said that it is the United States’ responsibility to call out these violations. “The Vietnamese people continue to have their religious freedom and other human rights violated. The U.S. should never shrink from calling out countries for such abuses,” said Royce.

Russia is another offender of the principles of religious freedom. The State Department omitted it from the list of CPCs. Because of Russia’s designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group and thus unlawful, USCIRF has called for Russia to go on the the list. Jehovah’s Witnesses are prohibited from legally gathering or preaching in Russia. There also continue to be frictions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. During the Soviet period, churches and seminaries belonging to the Catholic Church were seized by the Soviets and given to the Orthodox Church. These have yet to be restored.
 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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