Russia could join China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia on a list of what the Department of State calls “countries of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom.
For the first time, the U.S. government’s non-partisan religious freedom commission wants the Department of State to officially recognize Russia as a violator of religious liberty, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released Wednesday.
“Russian government has shown itself to be a systematic, ongoing and egregious violator of religious freedom,” Daniel Mark, vice chairman of USCIRF, told reporters Wednesday. “The U.S., through the Department of State, needs to recognize this fact, and send a clear message to Russia that we will not abide its continued campaign of attack and intimidation against freedom of religion and belief,” Mark said.
USCIRF recommended Russia be designated a violator of religious rights for several reasons. The commission says that Russia has “coopted the spiritual life of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority and arrested or driven into exile its community representatives” following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Russia has “expanded its repressive policies to the territory of a neighboring state, by means of military invasion and occupation,” the commission said in the report.
The Russian Supreme Court in April designated the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters as extremist, effectively attempting to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses from the country, USCIRF claims. The Jehovah’s Witness are considered one of the foremost pacifist religious sects in the West.
“The Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political stability,” USCIRF said in the report. The state has gotten too comfortable with the Russian Orthodox Church, effectively creating a single state-sanctioned religion, and that “favoritism has fostered a climate of hostility toward other religions.”
Since USCIRF was founded in 1998, one of its principal missions is to make recommendations to the State Department for what countries should be listed as countries of particular concern. The State Department does not always take the commission’s recommendations, and the punishments for countries of concern are minimal.
The U.S. has not lifted most of the sanctions levied against Russia and Russian officials after the 2014 occupation of Ukraine. Being listed on the State Department’s list of religious freedom violators doesn’t come with clear punishments.
“We make a recommendation, then the State Department has to agree with us” before the administration can take any action, Mark said.
The administration must decide what actions to take if the State Department agrees with USCIRF’s recommendation. The harshest action is usually imposing sanctions, and there are lower level diplomatic approaches as well. The administration has a variety of options to grant waivers to countries designated as CPCs, allowing trade agreements, sale of weapons and foreign aide payments to go through.
Saudi Arabia, for example, is already listed as a country of particular concern, but as a more neutral country in the Middle East, the U.S. still works to cooperate with the nation. President Donald Trump will visit Saudi Arabia later this month, and the U.S. plans to sell a bevy of weapons to the country over the next several years.
USCIRF’s report also introduces a new designation for non-state organizations that oppress religion, and named three Islamic terrorist groups as “entities of particular concern.”
To be considered an entity of particular concern, an organization must “control territory and have significant political control within countries can be even more oppressive than governments in their attacks on religious freedom.” (RELATED: Pence: No Group Faces ‘Greater Hostility Or Hatred’ Than Christians)
USCIRF recommends in the report that ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabaab in Somalia all be designated as entities of concern.
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