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‘Governments must speak out’: U.S. State Department Releases Annual Report On International Religious Freedom; Criticizes China, Afghanistan, Nigeria

‘Governments must speak out’: U.S. State Department Releases Annual Report On International Religious Freedom; Criticizes China, Afghanistan, Nigeria

‘Governments must speak out’: U.S. State Department Releases Annual Report On International Religious Freedom; Criticizes China, Afghanistan, Nigeria

(L) Burned Rikkos church in Nigeria (Image credit: MikeBlyth is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) (R) Nigerian Christian Woman sits with one of her children. (Image credit: ConDevCenter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
(L) Burned Rikkos church in Nigeria (Image credit: MikeBlyth is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) (R) Nigerian Christian Woman sits with one of her children. (Image credit: ConDevCenter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)
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The US State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom reports Thursday afternoon, detailing the deteriorating religious freedom conditions in China, Afghanistan, Nigeria and more.

With over 2,000 pages full of individual stories and statistics, the State Department unpacked religious freedom conditions in over 200 countries throughout 2021 as part of its annual report required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

“The report gives voice to countless individuals around the world who have been killed, beaten, threatened, harassed or jailed for seeking to exercise their beliefs in accordance with the dictates of their conscience,” stated Rashad Hussain, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large For International Religious Freedom. “Governments must speak out and protect the vulnerable and marginalized.”

The countries cited with religious freedom violations in the reports are extensive. In Eritrea, members of unregistered, protestant Christian groups are jailed and forced to renounce their faith. In Saudi Arabia, it remains illegal to practice any religion outside Islam. India has seen a distinct rise in attacks on churches. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have sentenced several to death.

Here are some of the State Department’s findings:

China: “a glaring example”

Throughout 2021, China tightened and expanded the red tape surrounding Christian leaders, houses of worship, Christian literature and online content. 

In May 2021, the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) issued new regulations requiring all clergy and church leadership to pledge their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party and the values of socialism. The regulations also created a database of “religious personnel” to “track their performance.” Church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, who belonged to unregistered churches were not granted “clergy cards.”

Authorities continued to remove crosses from the exteriors of churches. Many times under the guise of COVID-19, CCP officials shut down churches and at the same time restricted online worship. The printing and distribution of the Bible also continued to be limited. 

Children under the age of 18 are not permitted to participate in religious activities, such as church, or attend religious schools. Under SARA, Religious schools and universities are required to teach CCP ideology, “including required classes on Xi Jinping Thought, ideological and political theory, and socialism.”

Additional SARA regulations state that religious activity “‘must not harm national security’ or support ‘religious extremism.’” However, “religious extremism” is left undefined.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping continued his Sinicization of religion campaign, asking “religious personnel and government officials to ‘uphold and develop a religious theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics.’”

Afghanistan: religious freedom is “deteriorating dramatically”

Prior to the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021, Christians in Afghanistan were living in fear of having their religious identity exposed. Public attitude towards Christians, since most were converts from Islam, was antagonistic and many converts reported receiving death threats from their families. Christians worshiped secretly in homes or “nondescript places of worship” to avoid persecution.

After the Taliban takeover, the already-small population of Afghan Christians either fled the country or went even deeper into hiding. There were reports that Taliban soldiers were going door-to-door searching for Christians. The Taliban takeover also stirred angered family members to make increased, violent threats against Christian converts, the State Department reported.

Under the Taliban, apostasy and proselytizing to others is illegal and a punishable crime — sometimes with death. Blasphemy, which includes anti-Islam rhetoric or writings, is also punishable with death.

Conditions for Christian Afghan women have all but disintegrated as they have been denied both religious freedom and additional human rights. The Taliban has denied access to education for women, after promising it in November 2021. In many provinces in Afghanistan, women are required to wear head coverings and be accompanied by a man in public.

Nigeria: “a massive killing field”

In the northwestern region of Nigeria, violent conflict between Muslim herders and Christian farmers runs rampant, claiming many lives. Terrorist groups such as ISWAP and Boko Haram also attack Christian churches and villages in the northeast as part of a conflict that has lasted over a decade and has displaced millions. The State Department’s report includes instances of Christians being shot and killed and churches torched.

Throughout these northern regions kidnappings and robberies are carried out by terrorist and criminal groups, motivated by religion and other factors. Young Christian girls, such as Leah Sharibu, continue to be abducted, forced to convert to Islam and married off.

Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Kukah said in a 2021 Easter sermon about religious freedom conditions in Nigeria: “The nation has since become a massive killing field, as both government and the governed look on helplessly.” 

Nigeria had its Country of Particular Concern designation removed last November. The State Department’s report states that Nigeria “did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern” or as the second-tier Special Watch List country.

However, three days after the State Department’s report was released, Nigeria’s southwestern Ondo state experienced a deadly attack where gunmen killed at least 50 people as they celebrated a Pentecost Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Nigeria’s exclusion from the CPC designation has once again been highlighted.

USCIRF recommended Nigeria for the CPC list again in their 2022 report and has called upon the State Department to “reconsider its designation based on the facts presented in its own reporting.”

 

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Images: (L) Burned Rikkos church in Nigeria (Image credit: MikeBlyth is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) (R) Nigerian Christian Woman sits with one of her children. (Image credit: ConDevCenter is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

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