WASHINGTON - For the first time in almost 20 years of existence, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom has designated Russia as a Country of Particular Concern because of an increase in repressive policies it says range from administrative harassment to arbitrary imprisonment.
“The first thing is to make it clear to the Russian government in words, directly, ideally from the president of the United States, that we have grave concerns about the direction of religious freedom,” Daniel Mark, USCIRF's vice chairman, told VOA, and “not just the rules but the trajectory, which has been really concerning of late and played a big role in our decision.”
Last month, Russia's Supreme Court ruled the Jehovah's Witnesses religious group was an “extremist” organization and must hand over all of its properties to the state.
“To be labeled such a way as though we are extremist is clearly a misapplication of the laws on extremism. Clearly Jehovah's Witnesses ... should not really be the target because we are not a threat in Russia or any other country in the world. We are active in over 240 lands,” Robert Warren of the world headquarters for Jehovah's Witnesses told VOA.
WATCH: A first for Russia
No Bibles allowed
Warren says 175,000 people in Russia identify with the faith, and since the ruling, the organization's website has been blocked and no Jehovah's Witnesses Bibles have been allowed in the country.
“We really felt the Supreme Court of the Russian Confederation had a wonderful opportunity with this ruling to really show how advanced they really are in terms of protecting the rights of its own citizens who want to pursue Bible education,” Warren added, pointing out “this is definitely a step back.”
Sixteen countries have been designated as Countries of Particular Concern by USCIRF. The bipartisan U.S. government commission documents religious freedom around the world, and it makes recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress.
This year's report, the 18th since the commission's creation in 1998, documents religious freedom violations in more than 35 countries, including the Central African Republic, which also is a Country of Particular Concern because of “ethnic cleansing of Muslims and sectarian violence” in this multiyear conflict.
This week, hundreds of civilians sought refuge inside a mosque in the CAR town of Banguassou, amid ongoing attacks by Christian militias that have killed civilians and U.N. peacekeepers.
Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, head of the peacekeeping mission in CAR (MINUSCA), strongly condemned the killings, which he said “targeted a minority with the intention without a doubt to inflame the violence, not just in Banguassou but also in the whole of the territory.”
In Myanmar, government and societal discrimination make the Rohingya Muslims vulnerable; some have even fled the country. Christians are restricted from public worship and subjected to coerced conversion to Buddhism, warranting a Country of Particular Concern designation. The government and military deny all allegations.
In Pakistan, the commission recommended the blasphemy laws be repealed because “they are in one way or another a violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in practice they are used to violate freedom of believers and non-believers.”
A request for Trump
Clifford May, commissioner and founder of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that “at birth, Pakistan had a 30 percent minority population. It's now down to 3 percent, and that 3 percent is sorely oppressed every single day, and it's disappointing.” He said the last time he spoke on the issues in Pakistan, while his lectures resonated with some, a shoe was thrown at his head as well.
When it comes to religious freedom, the Reverend Thomas Reese, commission chairman, said, “We want the Trump administration to make it an issue, a priority in its foreign policy … our foreign policy should not simply be about U.S. self-interest — you know, national security and trade. It should also be about the ideals, the values for which this country is known,” noting “we also believe that promoting religious freedom around the world is a national security interest because it brings for peaceful societies where there's more tolerance and stability and peace.”