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The entanglement of faith traditions with national governments fueled religious freedom violations in 2018, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) annual report for 2019 released on April 29.

State repression of religious freedom is often perpetrated under the guise of maintaining “public order” or “national security” concerns or both.

Labelling religious minorities as extremists is another method used in some nations, as well as enacting or carrying out “blasphemy laws” that typically target minority faiths and those not officially recognized by the state.

“In countries like India, it is increasingly difficult to separate religion and politics, a tactic that is sometimes intentional by those who seek to discriminate against and restrict the rights of certain religious communities,” the report said. “Blasphemy and related laws in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia … were typically enforced against individuals belonging to a minority faith, following a faith not recognized by the state, or holding no faith at all.”

Countries were placed into two categories based on restrictions to religious expression:

1. Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) or Tier 1 is for nations “whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe religious freedom violation, meaning those that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.”

Sixteen nations received a CPC / Tier 1 designation: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. This list remains unchanged from both the 2018 report and 2017 report.

2. Tier 2 designates countries “in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government … are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’ CPC standard.”

Twelve countries were designated as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The list is unchanged from the 2018 and 2017 reports.

“At times, when a government or nonstate actor deems actions and expressions blasphemous or insulting to religion, it is that declaration … that incites hatred and violence,” the report said. “Nationalistic and ideological sentiment underpins some of these accusations and can motivate state and nonstate actors to manipulate religion in a way that is detrimental to other, often minority, religious and ethnic groups, such as in Burma and Iran.”

Summaries of violations and concerns related to the free exercise of religion are provided for each country designated tier 1 or 2.

In 2018, a new category was added to the annual report: “entities of particular concern,” or EPC.

This designation was established by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2016) to identify nonstate actors who committed “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Houthis in Yemen and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria were also designated as EPCs. The Houthis and HTS were new additions for 2019.

“The freedom to believe as one’s conscience dictates is a fundamental human right and vital to the security, stability and economic vitality of any state or region,” said USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee in an April 29 press release announcing the report’s publication.

“In the past year, we have seen severe violations of religious freedom mount around the globe, from the imprisonment of individuals charged with blasphemy in several countries to the internment of over one million Uighur Muslims in China. We and others laboring in the realm of religious freedom must persevere in our efforts to make this right a reality for everyone, everywhere.”

The full report is available here.

Editor’s note: news briefs on previous USCIRF religious freedom reports are available here.

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