US commission: Russia a major violator of religious freedom

The State Department should add Russia to its list of the worst violators of religious freedom, a U.S. commission declared in its annual report.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, founded to advise the federal government on the issue, comes out with its own list of shame each year, citing the most abusive countries in a lineup consistently longer than the State Department’s.

This year, the USCIRF report included a dissenting report from its vice chair criticizing the commission for failing to investigate Israel.

On Wednesday (April 26), USCIRF recommended that the U.S. should designate Russia as a “country of particular concern,” for wielding an anti-extremist law to violate the religious freedom of Muslims and other minorities.

Most recently, Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling them “extremist” and ordering the state to seize their properties.

“They’re treating these people like they’re terrorists,” said Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest who chairs USCIRF, referring to Russia’s treatment of the Witnesses. “They’re pacifists, they don’t want to be involved in politics and they just want to be left alone. The Supreme Court has basically said they’re illegal.”

Globally, “the commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,” Reese said.

USCIRF’s list this year differs from its 2016 list with the addition of Russia, but also the dropping of Egypt and Iraq, a move that may surprise some given continuing deadly attacks on Christians in those countries.

But Reese said that while violence against Christians in those nations remains a horrific problem, the commission wanted to highlight the concrete steps that both the Egyptian and Iraqi governments have taken to protect religious minorities.

On Egypt, for example, according to the report:

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi “consistently has made noteworthy public statements and gestures encouraging religious tolerance and moderation, has condemned sectarian attacks and assisted victims, and has urged reform of textbooks and religious discourse in society, an important shift in tone and rhetoric from his predecessors.”

Still, Egypt and Iraq are on USCIRF’s list of “Tier 2” countries, which are considered violators of religious freedom, but not as problematic as the CPCs.

On the same day of the report’s release, one commissioner, Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, held a news conference to discuss his dissent to the report, in which he criticizes the commission’s refusal to investigate Israel.

Zogby, flanked by sympathetic Christians in a Lutheran church on Capitol Hill, said Israel discriminates against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews but gets a free pass from the commission.

“I did not look for this issue, it came to us,” said Zogby, who cited a lengthy study from young lawyers in the West Bank — occupied by Israel — that concluded that Israel fails to meet international standards on religious freedom on which other nations are judged.

Other commissioners, Zogby said, were “bullied” to oppose an investigation. Those petitioning for an investigation were often dismissed as anti-Semites and some commissioners feared the commission would lose congressional support for investigating Israel, he said.

Joining Zogby Tuesday: the Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America; and the Rev. Drew Christiansen of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

Reese said many groups and people, including Zogby, propose that USCIRF launch investigations, but without a majority vote of the commission, those investigations don’t go forward.

“Jim proposed it but he didn’t get a majority,” said Reese, who added that USCIRF reports often include dissents.

The following 16 countries are on USCIRF’s 2017 list of CPCs: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia,

Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The 10 countries on the State Department’s list of prime religious freedom offenders, designated in 2016, are: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.