The U.S. State Department released its annual Countries of Particular Concern designations Friday for countries that have participated in or allowed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
CPC designations were given this year to Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Additionally, a lower-tier, Special Watchlist names Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros, and Vietnam.
CPC designations are given out by the State Department each year as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The bi-partisan commission on international religious freedom, USCIRF, annually researches and recommends to the State Department countries for CPC designation. Countries with CPC designations might experience consequences such as sanctions in an effort to motivate change.
New CPC designations were Cuba and Nicaragua. Both are warranted as the two countries have seen a blatant uptick in religious freedom violations, particularly against Christians this past year. Cuba’s government has cracked down on Christianity and any other religion, especially vocal Christians who criticize or protest the communist government, USCIRF reported. Nicaragua’s religious freedom conditions have deteriorated quickly as its president, Daniel Ortega, exercises increasingly authoritarian measures that specifically target Roman Catholic clergy and Catholic-affiliated organizations, according to USCIRF.
While the addition of Cuba and Nicaragua are two encouraging moves by the State Department, three countries were glaringly absent from the list of CPC designations: Nigeria, India and Afghanistan.
Nigeria was designated as a CPC for the first time in 2020 but had its designation removed in November of 2021 to the dismay of religious freedom advocates. Throughout 2022, Nigeria continued to see violence against Christians from bandits and Islamic militant groups, such as Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa. Data from Intersociety states that over 4,000 Christians were killed within the first 10 months of 2022 in Nigeria. At least 2,000 were kidnapped, according to the report.
One particularly violent event this year in Nigeria was the Owo church massacre in early June. At least 40 were killed after gunmen stormed a church in Southwestern Nigeria. This attack reinvigorated the call from religious freedom advocates, including For the Martyrs, to restore Nigeria’s CPC designation in light of rampant violence against Christians.
However, despite the outcry, Nigeria was still not designated as a CPC. USCIRF made clear its “outrage” at the State Department’s choice.
India also was left off the CPC designation list despite outcry from religious freedom advocates. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has stoked Hindu nationalism in policy and rhetoric, which has led to the persecution of minority religions, including Christians. Aid to the Church in Need documented “a record high” of over 800 attacks on Christians between 2020 to 2022. Laws have been passed in several of India’s states, which make it illegal to attempt to convert Hindus or in some cases even be perceived as attempting to convert Hindus.
Afghanistan’s omission from the list of CPCs is surprising as well because religious freedom has suffocated under the Taliban. Despite the State Department’s redesignation of the Taliban as an Entity of Particular Concern, the country itself has seen a rapid deterioration in freedom, including religion and women’s rights since the Taliban takeover in 2021. It is deadly to be a Christian in Afghanistan. Any remaining Christians have been forced to keep their faith secret. Meanwhile, the Taliban claims there are “no Christians in Afghanistan,” VOA reported. In mid-November, the Taliban announced the implementation of punishments from Sharia law, which might include the death penalty for anyone who converts from Islam, the BBC reported.
While the additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the CPC designation list are commendable, the U.S. State Department’s omission of Nigeria, India and Afghanistan are dismaying choices that have come without an explanation. The State Department, it seems, has turned a blind eye to the oppression and violence Christians and other religious minorities are experiencing in these countries.
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Image: “A praying pastor in Nigeria.” (Photo Credit: Jireh Mark, Unsplash.)