A bipartisan watchdog group has criticized the Biden State Department’s religious freedom classifications.
Despite requests from advocacy groups, the U.S. State Department decided on Friday to omit Nigeria and India from its annual list of nations where religious freedom violations are most troubling. This decision was “disappointed” by a congressionally mandated religious freedom watchdog panel.
There is “no basis,” according to Nury Turkel, chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, for the State Department to not designate Nigeria and India as “countries of particular concern” (CPC).
Prioritization of CPC designations was originally mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as “options for public policy aimed at ending the more egregious abuses of religious freedom.”
Countries covered by the State Department’s “CPC” designation may do so.
On Friday, the State Department designated China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as CPCs while naming Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam to the lower-tier special watchlist designation.
The State Department also designated nine groups, including the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram and Islamic State factions of ISIS-Greater Sahara and ISIS-West Africa, as “Entities of Particular Concern.” The other EPCs are the Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group, Somalia’s al-Shabab, Afghanistan’s Taliban, Syria’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Yemen’s Houthis and Mali’s Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
The International Religious Freedom Act also created USCIRF as a bipartisan, independent panel of experts advising the State Department and Congress about religious freedom conditions worldwide.
Turkel, who became the panel chairman this year, said that Nigeria and India “clearly meet the legal standards for designation as CPCs.”
“USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations that both USCIRF and the State Department have documented in those countries,” Turkel said. “The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations in Nigeria and India.”
The Biden administration received criticism from USCIRF and human rights activists last November when it removed Nigeria’s CPC designation amid concerns about the violence inflicted on Christian communities amid the presence of Boko Haram and other Islamic terrorist groups in the country’s northeast as well as communal violence in agricultural rich Middle Belt states.
A petition signed by over 30,000 supporters was sent to the White House last month urging the State Department to redesignate Nigeria as a country of concern. The nonprofit legal group Alliance Defending Freedom helped circulate the petition.
Kelsey Zorzi, the director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International, a legal nonprofit dedicated to defending religious freedom, said in a statement that removing Nigeria from the CPC list “signaled an alarming disregard for the state of religious freedom in the country.” Zorzi said the U.S. must “maintain pressure on Nigeria.”
Last month, the Anambra-based watchdog organization International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law reported that at least 4,000 Christians were killed in the first 10 months of 2022, while over 2,000 were abducted.
Critics have raised concerns about what they perceive as the Nigerian government’s inaction in holding perpetrators to account for the rising number of murders and kidnappings, which some groups warn have reached the level of “genocide.”
In September, USCIRF warned that religious freedom was deteriorating in Nigeria because of rising violence by non-state actors, and “poor governance” was driving and aggravating that violence.
The Nigerian government has pushed back against claims that religion is a driving factor in the violence committed, as terrorist groups in the northeast have killed many Muslims. The Nigerian government contributes the violence targeting predominantly Christian farming communities in the Middle Belt states to decades-old “farmer-herder” clashes.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Nigeria in November 2021. According to the State Department’s latest annual report, Blinken “raised religious freedom issues with government officials in a visit in November, as did embassy and consulate general officials throughout the year.”
According to the report, “U.S. officials also addressed religious conflicts and initiatives to bring religious organizations together with several state governors.”
The Biden State Department has been charged by several academics with supporting a “political narrative” on Nigeria.
Nina Shea, a human rights attorney and the head of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told CP that there is a “comprehensible difference” between the State Department’s data and what desperate Christians on the ground are saying to religious freedom advocates here.
This gap is the result of the state’s excessive dependence on the sources of its and the United States Agency for International Development’s support, which in turn promote the state’s preferred political narrative. According to that story, strife over a lack of resources as a result of climate change in the north is what fuels violence there.
For the past three years, USCIRF has recommended that India be added to the CPC list as “religious freedom conditions … continued their negative trajectory.”
“The government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” USCIRF wrote in its 2021 annual report.
Last month, a report released by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need examining human rights violations against Christians in 24 countries reported 710 incidents of anti-Christian violence in India between January 2021 and the start of June 2022 “driven in part by political extremism.”
The report listed India as one of the 18 countries where persecution of Christians was on the rise and cited an example of a mass rally in Chhattisgarh state where members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party applauded as right-wing Hindu religious leader Swami Parmatmanand called for Christians to be killed.
Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks India as the 10th worst country for Christian persecution.
Attacks on churches and prayer gatherings in India significantly increased between 2020 and 2021, according to the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations, and the “justice system has often failed to defend the rights of persecuted Christians and other minority religions.”
Former USCIRF commissioner Johnnie Moore, a champion for religious liberty and a leader in evangelical public relations, disagreed with the organization’s recommendation to designate India as a CPC in 2021.
India shouldn’t be considered a “country of particular concern” among all nations, and Moore expressed his disagreement in writing. “It is the biggest democracy in the world and is governed by a perfect constitution.” Its religious life has been its greatest historical blessing, and it personifies diversity. However, India does appear to be at a turning point.