The US State Department has added Russia to its list of nations it considers among the world’s most egregious violators of religious freedom.
Russia joins Myanmar (referred to as Burma on the list), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan on the 2021 list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC).
The most controversial change: Nigeria, which was finally added to the top-tier CPC list last year, is no longer included.
Nor is the troubled West African nation listed on the second-tier “Special Watch List,” where Russia had been listed in the 2020 designations. Meanwhile, Algeria was added to the watchlist, joining Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua, which were also listed in 2020.
“In far too many places around the world, we continue to see governments harass, arrest, threaten, jail, and kill individuals simply for seeking to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Wednesday in an announcement. “This Administration is committed to supporting every individual’s right to freedom of religion or belief, including by confronting and combating violators and abusers of this human right.”
“The challenges to religious freedom in the world today are structural, systemic, and deeply entrenched. They exist in every country,” stated Blinken. “They demand sustained global commitment from all who are unwilling to accept hatred, intolerance, and persecution as the status quo. … We will continue to press all governments to remedy shortcomings in their laws and practices, and to promote accountability for those responsible for abuses.”
Blinken also redesignated nine militant groups as “entities of particular concern”: al-Shabab; Boko Haram; Hayat Tahrir al-Sham; the Houthis; the Islamic State group, or ISIS; ISIS-Greater Sahara; ISIS-West Africa; Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin; and the Taliban.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was “appalled” at Nigeria’s “unexplainable” removal.
“While the State Department took steps forward on some designations, USCIRF is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year, as well as the omission of India, Syria, and Vietnam,” stated chair Nadine Maenza. “We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on facts presented in its own reporting.”
USCIRF “welcomed” Russia’s addition to the CPC list, having recommended such a designation since 2017.
“For years, USCIRF has raised the alarm regarding the Russian government’s purge of ‘non-traditional’ religions and religious freedom repression,” stated vice chair Nury Turkel. “USCIRF also applauds the inclusion of Algeria in the State Department’s SWL designations this year, which USCIRF has recommended since 2020 due to continued enforcement of blasphemy laws and restrictions on houses of worship for minority religious communities.”
Earlier in November, USCIRF had reiterated its recommendations for the State Department’s 2021 designations, advocating that four nations be added to the CPC list (India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam) and that 10 nations be added to the watchlist (Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan).
“For years, the Russian government has conducted a purge of ‘non-traditional’ religions, frequently labeling as ‘extremists’ and imprisoning peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses, and readers of the moderate Islamic theologian Said Nursi,” USCIRF stated in a November fact sheet. “Russian courts continue to deliver harsher and more numerous prison sentences for Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking to practice their faith.”
“In addition, Russia has exported its repressive religious regime to the neighboring country of Ukraine,” stated USCIRF. “‘Authorities” in Russian-occupied Crimea and the Russian-backed Donbas commit widespread religious freedom abuses, including false charges of Islamist terrorism to imprison Crimean Tatars.”
CT has reported how Russia’s efforts to prevent terrorism have restricted the religious freedom of non-Orthodox faiths, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians, including most recently seminary shutdowns. Germany has offered asylum to Baptists fleeing fines for evangelism, while Russian evangelicals have wrestled with whether to defend Jehovah’s Witnesses after the pacifist faith was banned as extremist.
Additional reporting by CT. This post will be updated.