Liberty of conscience and worship is in decline around the world

by Erasmus | WASHINGTON, D.C.| Russia and five other countries join a list of offenders compiled by American religious-freedom watchers

Russia has been added to the list of egregious violators of religious freedom by an American agency that is mandated by law to monitor liberty of belief around the world, and denounce persecutors.  The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said its view was reinforced by a recent Russian court ruling to outlaw the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The agency’s bleak assessment of Russia is the most striking development in a generally pessimistic survey of the multiple, dreadful ways in which liberty of conscience and worship is being curtailed by the world’s nations, and also by terrorist groups.  Under America’s religious-liberty legislation, two institutions are instructed to keep a close eye on freedom of belief: the State Department and USCIRF, a panel of eminent members jointly nominated by Congress and the White House.  The commission, whose role is advisory, often takes a rather more stringent view than the Department.

But the American government and those of other Western countries will certainly concur that a dark precedent was set by banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses outright, a move that has prompted the closure of the movement’s 400 or so branches or “chapters” in Russia. The authorities have also stepped up the collection of personal details of the group’s members.  The Witnesses, keen proselytisers who urge people to prepare for humanity’s end times, are at odds with the authorities in many countries, often over their refusal to engage in military service.

Among Russia-watchers, the banning of the Witnesses is seen as the latest example of the use of legislation banning “extremism” to repress people who are guilty of nothing more than idiosyncratic beliefs. Another group whom the authorities consider “extreme” are followers of Said Nursi, a Turkish preacher of a mystical form of Islam. Russia’s state policy tends to favour “traditional” religions: the established forms of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism. It makes life harder for other religious groups.  

Introducing its general assessment of freedom of conscience round the world, the USCIRF said:

“The state of affairs…is worsening both in the depth and the breadth of the violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, the wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or unappreciated.”

The commission endorsed the State Department’s current list of 10 “countries of particular concern”—in other words, especially severe violators—and named six other countries which, in the panel’s view, ought to be added: the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. The commission also named three non-state actors that were guilty of terrible persecution: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan’s Taliban, and al-Shabaab of Somalia.

Being named as a country of particular concern can incur American sanctions, although in practice the administration often invokes “waivers” to avoid damaging sensitive strategic relationships. As an advisory body whose main mandate is simply to describe reality, the Commission feels less constrained by the need to observe diplomatic niceties.

The commission’s latest list of “Tier 2” violators of religious freedom (not in the top league but still troubling) includes several mainly Muslim countries with which the United States has a significant strategic stake: Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and NATO member Turkey. Also included is Bahrain, a country where an authoritarian Sunni regime presides over a mainly Shia Muslim population.

In a way the State Department and the USCIRF play “good cop and bad cop”. The commission issues scoldings wherever they are merited. The Department has other things to consider— including the awkward fact that many, perhaps most, of the countries that offer their services to the United States as allies against jihadi terrorism are themselves fairly repressive of religious freedom. In today’s messy and perilous world, games of good and bad cop may be an unfortunate necessity.