WASHNGTON — The State Department on Thursday unveiled its list of countries designated as the worst offenders against religious liberty. Advocates of religious freedom applauded the list, but said that several additional countries should have been added.
The countries of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were labeled as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) in the State Department’s report. The 10 countries on the “CPC” list are unchanged from last year.
In addition, Pakistan was placed on a “Special Watch List,” which is a new category below that of “Countries of Particular Concern.”
A country is labeled as a CPC after it engages in “systemic, ongoing, [and] egregious” violations of religious liberty. The “Special Watch List” is for countries that “engage in or tolerate severe violations” of religious liberty, but not to the extent of a CPC.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government commission created in 1998 to study religious liberty around the world, praised the inclusion of the 10 CPC counties, but said that several others should have been added.
The commission had recommended that Russia, Vietnam, Syria, Nigeria and the Central African Republic be added, adding that Pakistan should have been included on the list of CPCs, 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.
Mark said it was a “surprise and disappointment” that Pakistan was not added to the list of CPCs, especially given President Donald Trump’s past criticism of the nation, which has engaged in state-sponsored discrimination against religious minority groups and has anti-blasphemy laws.
Vietnam was previously designated as a CPC, but was taken off the list about a decade ago, in opposition to USCIRF’s recommendation. The commission has since called for it to be re-added to the list.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., questioned why Vietnam was omitted from the list of CPCs. Royce said Vietnam has regularly violated both religious liberty and other basic human rights and said that it is the United States’ responsibility to call out these violations.
Chairman Royce writes: "Religious freedom is a fundamental human right, yet far too many people around the world are still persecuted, imprisoned, and killed solely because of their beliefs. It is our responsibility, as Americans, to speak for those with no voice."— Jason Calvi (@JasonCalvi) January 4, 2018
Russia was also among the countries that the State Department omitted from its list of CPCs. USCIRF had called for it to receive the designation, in part due to an anti-extremism law that has been used to label Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group, banning them from legally gathering or preaching in the country.