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USCIRF laments 'disastrous downward spiral' for religious freedom in Afghanistan

Afghanistan, Christians,
Afghan refugee Faridah visits a course preparing her to convert into christian confession by baptism in Berlin, Germany, on October 23, 2016. |

WASHINGTON — For the first time in 20 years, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is recommending that the U.S. State Department designate Afghanistan as a country of particular concern as the Taliban’s takeover has led to a surge in the persecution of religious minorities. 

At a press conference on Monday, USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza spoke about the 2022 Annual Report, which highlights both state and non-state actors that are engaged in the most egregious violations of religious freedom. 

“USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. advisory body dedicated to promoting the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad,” she said, explaining that the annual report classifies countries as either a country of particular concern or placement on a special watch list. USCIRF has been authorized to compile reports on violators since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

The report classifies countries as either a country of particular concern or placement on a special watch list. Maenza defined countries of particular concern as “countries whose governments engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” 

Meanwhile, countries recommended for placement on a special watch list “meet two but not all three of the ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious’” categories, she said.

The religious freedom violations in Afghanistan, where conditions have deteriorated following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, loomed large in the report. 

“Religious conditions there went into an immediate and disastrous downward spiral following the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 and the immediate takeover by the Taliban," Maenza said. "While we had long been concerned about conditions in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power has had a chilling impact on religious freedom and [the] broader human rights environment.

“Given this precipitous decline in 2021, USCIRF has taken the steps of recommending in this year’s annual report that the State Department designate Afghanistan under the de facto rule of the Taliban as a country of particular concern, or a [CPC] state,” she added. USCIRF last recommended Afghanistan for designation as a country of particular concern in 2001, “just before the ousting of the previous Taliban regime, which had controlled most of the country since 1996.” 

According to the report, “Afghans who do not adhere to the Taliban’s harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam and adherents of other faiths or beliefs are at risk of grave danger. Reports indicate that the Taliban continue to persecute religious minorities and punish residents in areas under their control in accordance with their extreme interpretation of Islamic law.” 

“USCIRF has received credible reports that religious minorities, including nonbelievers and Muslims with differing beliefs from the Taliban, were harassed and their houses of worship desecrated," the report adds. "By year’s end, the one known Jew and most Hindus and Sikhs had fled the country. Christian converts, Baha’is and Ahmadiyya Muslims practiced their faith in hiding due to fear of reprisal and threats from the Taliban and separately from the Islamic State-Khorassan Province.”

While Maenza praised the Biden administration for its “continued prioritization of international religious freedom during the first year,” she pushed for stronger condemnation of religious freedom violations in Nigeria.

The State Department labeled 10 of the 15 countries USCIRF recommended for designation as countries of particular concern on its November 2021 list of such countries, but Nigeria and Afghanistan were two of the five additional countries singled out as religious freedom violators that did not make it onto the list. 

In addition to Afghanistan and Nigeria, the countries USCIRF also recommended for designation as countries of particular concern that did not make it onto the State Department’s official list were India, Syria and Vietnam. Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan comprised the State Department’s list of countries of particular concern, which overlapped with USCIRF’s recommendations.

The report urged the Biden administration’s State Department to add nine additional countries to its December 2021 Special Watch List, which already includes Algeria, Cuba and Nicaragua. USCIRF recommended the addition of Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey and Uzbekistan to the Special Watch List.

A third category, entities of particular concern, listed “nonstate actors that engage in particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” according to the report. This year, the list of nine EPCs consisted of al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Houthis, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and the Taliban.” 

During the press conference, USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava said, “this year, we actually did not have any dissents on any of the chapters in the report.” Bhargava remarked that the absence of dissents reflected that “the commissioners agreed on recommendations that were made in the report.” Maenza reported that traditionally, “all chapters in the report are approved by a majority vote.” 

The unanimity surrounding the recommendations in the report is notable because the commissioners represent “different religious, political and professional backgrounds.” USCIRF currently consists of three members appointed by Republicans and five appointed by Democrats. Commissioners include Republican-appointed Tony Perkins of the socially conservative think-tank Family Research Council, a Christian; Democrat-appointed Khizr Khan, a Muslim; and Democrat-appointed Sharon Kleinbaum, a Jewish rabbi. 

The report is nearly 100 pages long and devotes about 1,800 words to each of the 27 countries recommended for designation as either a country of particular concern or for placement on the special watch list. Maenza mentioned that USCIRF compiles “longer, more in-depth reports” about specific countries throughout the year.

In a statement released Friday, Maenza said they were "disheartened by the deterioration of freedom of religion or belief in some countries — especially Afghanistan."

"Religious minorities have faced harassment, detention, and even death due to their faith or beliefs, and years of progress toward more equitable access to education and representation of women and girls have disappeared.”

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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