USCIRF 2023 Annual Report shows serious regression in several countries and a few new entries. In China and Russia, minorities continue to be persecuted.
by Marco Respinti
Readers of “Bitter Winter” know the bad news quite well: in the year 2023, religious liberty is still denied to their citizens by too many countries. Even worse is that the scenario is generally so bad because, while in many countries the situation is unaltered, others show serious regressions, and there are even unprecedented new entries. This is what the 2023 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), published on May 1, 2023, and covering the year 2022, documents at least for Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, and Russia.
The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Chaired by Uyghur-American Nury Turkel, author of the important book “No Escape,” its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties. Its main goal is monitoring the state of religious freedom in the world. Consequently, USCIRF reports situations that, according to its authoritative evaluation, the U.S. government should particularly consider. Occasionally, USCIRF even criticizes decisions by its government. This is why a note in the Report on Nigeria, a country where violence against Christians has reached astonishing peaks, is particularly revealing and alarming. “Despite continued religious freedom challenges in the country,” the report notes, “in November the U.S. Department of State failed to designate Nigeria as a country of particularly concern (CPC) for engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
This year’s Report designates 17 nations as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs). These are places where governments are involved in major or noteworthy violations of FoRB, or the right to freedom of religion, belief, and creed. The list includes the 12 nations that the State Department itself designated as CPCs in November 2022, i.e. Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, adding five: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.
Cuba and Nicaragua
The main news here are two new entries: Cuba and Nicaragua, officially designated by both the US State department and the USCIRF as CPCs. It never happened before, and this is rather serious. In fact, both Cuba and Nicaragua suffered heavy-handed Communist regimes during the Cold War, both depending ideologically, politically, economically and strategically on the former Soviet Union (USSR). In Cuba and Nicaragua, Soviet-directed espionage and military threats as well as religious persecution and systematic violation of human rights were daily occurrences. Then, at the end of the Cold War, substantially due to the collapse of the USSR, both regimes of Caribbean Communism transformed and somewhat relaxed their policies. Unable to maintain them, chiefly economically, Cuba renounced to many of its former distinctive features, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua even lost power in 1990.
Generally, many in the West, probably too early, came to perceive both nations as “tamed,” and this idea persevered until very recently. On the contrary, facts show that Cuba didn’t change much, and that Nicaragua started violating human rights all over again, when former Sandinista leader, Daniel José Ortega Saavedra, returned to power in 2006. USCIRF documents that, at least with respect to religious persecution, both countries are even worse today than they were in their old days.
“Throughout the year,” the 2023 USCIRF Annual Report states, “the Cuban government tightly controlled religious activity through surveillance, harassment of religious leaders and laypeople, forced exile, fines, and ill treatment of religious prisoners of conscience. Religious leaders and groups that are unregistered or conducted unsanctioned religious activity—as well as journalistic reporting on religious freedom conditions—faced relentless oppression from the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and state security forces. The Cuban government regularly targeted members of religious communities who refused to abide by strict regulations set out by the ORA.”
As to Nicaragua, “[t]he government of Nicaragua, under President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, escalated its campaign of harassment and severe persecution against the Catholic Church by targeting clergy, eliminating Church-affiliated organizations, and placing restrictions on religious observances.” Even “[s]hortly after Pope Francis acknowledged dialogue between the Vatican and the Nicaraguan government,” in mid-September 2022, “President Ortega—during a televised speech—called the Church a ‘perfect dictatorship’ and renewed his old accusations of clergy as ‘killers’ and ‘coup plotters’”.
States and privates
Another group of 11 countries are included in the Annual Report’s “Special Watch List”: Algeria and Central African Republic (confirming the November 22 evaluation by the US State Department), plus Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka (a new entry), Turkey, and Uzbekistan (nine are additions by the USCIRF).
States confirm to be the worst systematic persecutors of believers, but they are not alone. USCIRF points also to seven “entities of particular concern” (EPCs). They are private organizations, even if sometimes pretending to be states or acting like they were, which have developed a highly effective machinery of persecution. They are al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP or ISIS-West Africa), and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). All of them had been also singled out by the US State Department in November 2022.
Considering the authority and prestige of USCIRF (and “Bitter Winter” is grateful to be among the sources used in the 2023 Annual Report,) a few comments regarding two countries listed as CPCs, China and Russia, may be in order. They are in fact the major role-players in the world scenario of religious persecution, also due to their recent tactic realignment and their mutual borrowing of propaganda and repressive techniques.
In the People’s Republic of China, the aggression on beliefs and faiths is massive and increasing. It is mainly performed through the government’s continued and vigorous implementation of its “Sinicization of religion” policy, demanding “that religious groups support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology.”
In Xinjiang, that its non-Han inhabitants call East Turkestan, the regime “attempts to eradicate Uyghurs’ and other Turkic Muslims’ distinct ethnoreligious identities.” In Tibet, “[g]overnment control and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism intensified,” including through collection of DNA.
As for Catholics, “[d]espite renewal in October of the Vatican-China agreement on bishop appointments, in December the Vatican protested the government’s installation of a bishop without its approval. Across China, authorities detained or otherwise forcibly disappeared Catholic priests and bishops—including Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu and Bishop Augustine Cui Tai—who refused to join the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.”
Protestants Christians are persecuted as well, and the situation of what the regime instrumentally calls “xie jiao” worsened. “The government continued its persecution of Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God (CAG),” the 2023 Annual Report writes, “often using ‘anti-cult’ provisions under Article 300 of China’s Criminal Law.”
The decline of religious freedom conditions in the Russian Federation is constant, since “[a]uthorities increasingly prosecuted members of religious minority communities using a range of legal mechanisms, including a 1996 religion law; laws on terrorism, extremism, and ‘undesirable organizations’; provisions criminalizing blasphemy; and others.” But these are “vague laws” that “continued to give authorities broad powers to outlaw religious groups, prosecute individuals based on their religious speech or religious activities, and ban religious literature deemed ‘extremist.’ The government also continued to fine Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Old Believers, and others for illegal missionary activities and other violations of various restrictions.”
The functional accusation of “extremism,” “without adequately defining ‘extremism’,” gave its bitter fruits also in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in February, 2022. The “‘denazification’ rhetoric,” which served as the first propagandistic rationale of the war unleashed against Ukraine, while being based on false claims, “often resulted in antisemitic Russian propaganda and remarks from government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.”
Furthermore, “[a]s part of its war propaganda, the Russian government also pointed to the alleged flourishing of ‘satanism’ and other religious movements—so-called ‘cults’—in Ukraine, with one official,” i.e. the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “calling for the ‘desatanization of Ukraine.’ Dissidents within Russia voicing opposition to the war on religious grounds faced fines and detention for allegedly discrediting and disseminating false information about the Russian army. Religious leaders who refused to voice support for the invasion, such as the chief rabbi of Moscow, were forced to flee Russia.”