Religious freedom across the globe has been sharply curtailed over the last year, a U.S. watchdog agency concluded Monday.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, said that authoritarian governments throughout the world are jailing prisoners of conscience — most often Christians and Muslims — for practicing their religious beliefs, while there is also an increase in bigotry against Jews and Muslims in Europe.
There is "no shortage of attendant suffering worldwide," the independent government agency said, adding that it is fueled in part by the hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to flee their homelands, often because they have been persecuted for religious reasons.
"The incarceration of prisoners of conscience — people whom governments hold for reasons including those related to religion — remains astonishingly widespread, occurring in country after country, and underscores the impact of the laws and policies that led to their imprisonment," the report said.
It said the instances of religious intolerance "are crises in their own right which cry out for continued action on the part of the international community, including the United States."
The 2016 report said that religious freedom "deserves a seat at the table when nations discuss humanitarian, security and other pressing issues. The United States and other countries must fully accord this right the respect it deserves and redouble their efforts to defend this pivotal liberty worldwide."
Hot spots of religious suffering
The commission singled out some countries for particular abuses against religious minorities. The report cited China, where Christians have been imprisoned for refusing to remove crosses atop churches; Iran, where religious minorities have been sentenced to death for "enmity against God"; and North Korea, where thousands of religious believers have been imprisoned in labor camps.
The commission said more people in Pakistan are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy than in any other country in the world, while Saudi Arabia sentenced a Saudi poet and artist to death for alleged apostasy for advocating atheism, although the sentence was later cut to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.
In Uzbekistan, a majority-Muslim country, the report said a human rights activist has been imprisoned for supporting persecuted independent Muslims. Vietnam controls nearly all religious activities.
The report denounced Islamic State jihadists for their "summary executions, rape, sexual enslavement, abduction of children, destruction of houses of worship and forced [religious] conversions."
It said the Syrian and Iraqi governments "can be characterized by their near-incapacity to protect segments of their population" from Islamic State terrorists.
The agency, which acts in an advisory role to President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and the State Department, said nine nations should retain their State Department designations as "countries of particular concern" (or CPCs) for their “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The report recommended that eight more countries be added to that list: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
In addition, 10 countries have been placed on a “Tier 2” watch list. These countries “do not rise to the statutory level that would mandate a CPC designation but require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.”
The list includes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.