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COVID-19 used as ‘excuse’ in religious persecution globally

WASHINGTON (BP) – Countries used COVID-19 as an excuse to persecute religious minorities and sometimes blamed certain religions for the pandemic itself, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its 2021 Annual Report.

USCIRF’s report focuses on religious freedom violations and progress in 26 countries in the calendar year 2020, identifying severe violators of the International Religious Freedom Act and other countries that should be monitored. USCIRF pinpoints non-state entities that violently restricted religious freedom and recommends independent policy changes to the U.S. president, secretary of state and Congress to deal with respective countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic added a new factor to the religious freedom landscape, USCIRF chairman Gayle Manchin said in releasing the report Wednesday (April 21). Looking at public opinion, misinformation and justified and unjustified restrictions during the pandemic, Manchin described the pandemic’s “net negative impact” on religious freedom globally.

“Unfortunately it had a negative impact in many ways. We certainly understood and supported countries’ restriction of activities for their country, which also included religious church services,” Manchin said. “What we found to be unacceptable were where minorities were targeted in a much stricter fashion, and their activities restricted much more harshly than other religions across the country.”

Pakistani Shiites, religious minorities in North Korea, many Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere, and religious minorities and women in India were among those harassed, physically attacked and arrested, often in prisons made more dismal by the lack of legitimate COVID-19 safety protocols, USCIRF said.

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“There were countries that literally blamed the COVID-19 virus on a particular religion, that they were responsible for the spread of that virus across their country,” Manchin said. “So we tried to certainly bring that out [in the report], be forthright in where countries were doing the right things in restrictions, and those that used it as an excuse to punish and penalize minority religions in their country.

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“…As COVID restrictions are lifted, we will carefully monitor those countries to make sure those restrictions are lifted on all of the religious groups within a country, and not separated by particular religions.”

Global anti-Semitism, attacks on churches and other houses of worship, religious freedom violations stemming from political unrest, Uyghur Muslim persecution in China, and China’s promotion of religious restrictions internationally are growing trends USCIRF identified.

India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam are new to the 2021 list of countries USCIRF is asking the U.S. State Department to designate as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), described as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” religious freedom violations. The four countries join those retained in 2021 from the 2020 list of CPCs, namely Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Cuba and Nicaragua, countries on the 2020 Special Watch List (SWL), are retained among USCIRF’s 2021 SWL of countries whose governments tolerate or engage in “severe” religious freedom violations. Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan are new 2021 SWL recommendations.

USCIRF recommended the same list of Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs) for 2021 as in 2020: Boko Haram, the Houthis (Ansar Allah), Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Taliban.

Commissioners expressed deep concern over China’s attempts to influence religious freedom policy and restrictions in free nations, including governmental pressure on international companies doing business there, and the promotion of Chinese surveillance technology abroad.

“Multinational corporations around the world, and corporations whose home is right here in the United States, are being told by the Chinese Communist Government that if they want to do business with Communist China,” Commissioner Gary Bauer said, “they need to toe the line. And that doesn’t mean just be silent about what Communist China is doing. These companies and others are being told that they have to endorse what Communist China is doing. … We have a challenge to basic human rights and religious liberty that affects every nation in the world.”

Bauer said the commission “feels very strongly that this is something that every nation and every international body who cares about human rights and religious liberty” needs to address. He encouraged American corporations to consider values over profit.

USCIRF, a bipartisan group, recommends U.S. policy including sanctions, diplomacy and financial agreements. Among them, USCIRF recommends fully enforcing the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act in China; increasingly countering Chinese governmental influence in the U.S., such as Confucius institutes that suppress religious freedom advocacy in China; and integrating security and human rights as complementary objectives in U.S. policy towards North Korea.

U.S. leaders should enter a binding agreement with Nigeria to provide pertinent financial and technical support to the country whereby Nigeria could substantially address religious persecution there; and financially support programs that engage Nigeria’s civilians and authorities in protecting places of worship and other holy sites.

Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical commissioners include Bauer, USCIRF Vice Chair and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Kairos Company President Johnnie Moore.

USCIRF’s 2021 report is available here.



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