An independent United States’ commission has called for India, Russia, Vietnam and Syria to be added to a State Department blacklist on religious freedom.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government panel that gives recommendations to presidential administrations and Congress, said the four countries should be designated as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) on the State Department list, which currently includes Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
In particular, the recommendation of India as a CPC, the second year the commission has done so, has in the past been controversial.
The report said the “religious freedom conditions in India continued their negative trajectory”, adding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government “promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
It pointed to allegations of police complicity in violence against Muslims during deadly riots last year in New Delhi and continued concerns about a citizenship law championed by Modi that critics have said defines Muslims as non-Indian.
New Dehli did not immediately respond to the newest annual report, but last year dismissed the recommendation as “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation”.
The report also said Sudan, Bahrain and Central African Republic no longer met the “high threshold” to be recommended for the State Department’s special watch list (SWL). All three countries had been recommended for that list in the previous annual report.
Biden administration recommendations
In further recommendations to the Biden administration, the commission called for a review of policies for blacklisted countries that currently have waivers in place to protect them from US penalties for abuses of religious liberties.
It called on the administration to review the waivers for Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan “and make appropriate policy changes to demonstrate meaningful consequences and encourage positive change commission”.
Commissioners also called on the Biden administration to raise its cap on refugee admissions. The administration has said it will announce a new cap by May 15, after facing blowback for plans to keep the administration of President Donald Trump’s historically low quota.
The Biden administration, the commission said, should also officially label the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar as “genocide” and lift the cap on refugee admissions.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Anurima Bhargava, a civil rights lawyer and vice chair of the commission, said they were urging “the administration to definitively and publicly conclude that the atrocities committed, and that are ongoing against the Rohingya people by the Burmese military constitute genocide, and acting accordingly, as a State Department recently determined regarding China’s genocide of Uighur and other Turkic Muslims.”
In China, the report said, religious freedom had again “deteriorated” in 2020, as the government targeted “religions perceived to have foreign connections, such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism”. The commission cited reports the persecuted groups were subject to surveillance, detention, torture, and rape.
Commissioner, Johnnie Moore, a Trump appointee to the panel, said “the Democratically-appointed and Republican-appointed commissioners on this commission speak with one voice on the threats of the of the Communist Party in China.”
“This is the more than the consensus view, this has become the passion of this commission,” he said.
The report released Wednesday also noted the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, with Chairwoman Gayle Conelly Manchin saying the pandemic had an overall net negative effect on freedom of religion.
While some restrictions on religious gatherings were in line with public health concerns, there were also instances “where minorities were targeted in a much stricter fashion and their activities restricted much more harshly than other religions”.
“There were countries that literally blamed the COVID-19 virus on a particular religion, that they were responsible for the spread of … the virus across their country,” she said.
The report specifically cited Dalits in India blamed for spreading the coronavirus, suggestions in Iran that the coronavirus was a Jewish conspiracy, Protestant Christians accused of spreading the virus in Russia, and a Saudi lockdown on the majority Shia province of Qatif.
Meanwhile, the commissioners praised some blacklisted countries, including Eritrea, for releasing religious prisoners during the pandemic.