The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report Monday, recommending Afghanistan and Nigeria be designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” for violating religious freedom.
The “Country of Particular Concern” designation is reserved for countries whose governments commit or tolerate “‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom” that are “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious.” Countries with this designation may be subject to sanctions to promote improvement of religious freedom.
Afghanistan: “A disastrous downward spiral”
Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August 2021, religious freedom in Afghanistan “went into an immediate and disastrous downward spiral,” USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza stated at a press conference Monday, and religious minorities were left in imminent danger of persecution.
Christians in Afghanistan are in “grave danger,” according to the report. USCIRF cites estimates from International Christian Concern that there were 12,000 Christian converts within the country before the U.S. withdrawal. However, the current number is unknown, and many are most likely in hiding.
Afghan Christians must practice their faith in secret. The small population faces threats from both the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province or ISIS-K group. ISIS-K was responsible for the Kabul Airport bombing last August that killed more than 170 civilians. Both organizations ascribe death sentences to “apostates” or converts from Islam.
USCIRF reported that they had received credible accounts that “religious minorities, including nonbelievers and Muslims with differing beliefs from the Taliban, were harassed and their houses of worship desecrated.” The commission also reported that the Taliban went door-to-door searching for Christians.
USCIRF recommended the U.S. State Department place Afghanistan “under the de facto rule of the Taliban” on the CPC list for the first time since 2001. Additionally, the body recommended that existing refugee status for Afghans be expanded to include religious minorities fleeing persecution.
“The crisis in Afghanistan should serve as a collective call to action to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable religious communities around the globe,” the report emphasized.
Nigeria: “A hotbed of persecution”
Nigeria was designated for the first time as a “country of particular concern” by the State Department after 11 years of recommendations by USCIRF. In 2021, that designation was removed despite any improvement of religious freedom within the country.
Maenza expanded on this saying that in removing Nigeria’s CPC designation, the State Department showed that “Nigeria is a country with no severe religious freedom violations.” However this is not accurate, she said, state-led repression and religiously motivated violence have turned Nigeria “into a hotbed of persecution—particularly in the north.”
USCIRF cited numerous instances of violence against religious minorities throughout 2021. Boko Haram and ISWAP both continued to “conduct attacks based on belief, and enforce their interpretations of religious law” in the areas they control, according to the report. USCIRF reports that in the north, Boko Haram has ordered both Christians and Muslims to marry off their daughters “at the age of 12 or ‘face consequences.’”
Armed groups also attacked houses of worship, churches and even local religious leaders and congregations. Some churches even received letters threatening attacks if they did not close. At least 13 religious leaders were kidnapped and held for ransom, the report stated. Leah Sharibu was specifically mentioned by name as an on-going prisoner of conscience held by ISWAP.
“Although government efforts to hold perpetrators accountable appear to have increased compared with previous years, the Nigerian government has often failed to respond sufficiently to violence against religious leaders and congregations,” the report said.
In addition to Afghanistan and Nigeria, USCIRF recommended 13 additional countries for the CPC designation: India, Syria, Vietnam, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
In a statement released Friday, Maenza said the commission was disheartened by the deterioration of freedom of religion or belief in some countries — especially Afghanistan.”
Would you consider giving to support persecuted Christians? Click here to donate now!