State Department Faces New USCIRF Recommendations

Each year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) publishes an annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world. USCIRF, statutorily-established by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), is charged with examining religious freedom violations and making recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.

USCIRF understands the terms religious freedomfreedom of religion, and freedom of religion or belief as the “broad right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief—including the right to nonbelief—protected under international human rights law.” Primarily, USCIRF annual reports address the conditions of religious freedom in countries and provide recommended designations to the State Department. The designations (delineated below) are meant to bring attention to religious freedom violations and help guide U.S. policy to better promote religious freedom. The President “delegated the authority to determine these designations to the Secretary of State,” who does so through the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

The official designations made by the State Department are:

Country of Particular Concern (CPC): USCIRF will recommend a country be designated as a CPC if it finds the country’s government engaging in or tolerating ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom. IRFA defines ‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’ as systematic, ongoing, egregious violations that can include torture, detention without charges, abduction, and other blatant life, liberty, or security denials of a person.

Special Watch List (SWL): USCIRF will recommend a country be placed on the State Department’s SWL if the country’s government engages in or tolerates ‘severe’ violations of religious freedom. For this designation, the country would embody two of the three characterizations of IRFA’s ‘systematic’, ‘ongoing’, and ‘egregious’ standard.

Entity of Particular Concern (EPC): EPCs are nonstate actors or groups that exercise significant political power and territorial control, are outside of sovereign government control, and often use violence to attain their goals. EPCs are also found to have engaged in ‘particularly severe’ violations of religious freedom.

It is perhaps important to emphasize that while USCIRF does work to make and publish informed recommendations, the State Department ultimately has the authority to make final official designations. For example, the USCIRF 2022 Annual Report supported the designation of both Nigeria and India as CPCs. When the State Department announced the official religious freedom designations in December 2022—excluding the two nations—USCIRF responded incredulously. Nigeria and India’s persecution of minority beliefs is antithetical to the secular principles of each nation’s Constitutions; yet in both instances, discrimination based on religious beliefs proliferates regardless of the absence of an official adopted religion.

Such discrimination on the basis of religion begets dire consequences, as exemplified in USCIRF’s November 2022 report entitled ‘A Global Overview of Official and Favored Religions and Legal Implications for Religious Freedom’. This report asserts the correlation between countries that either implicitly or explicitly enforce official or favored religion in law and policy and discrimination against victims that are typically “religious minorities, dissenters within the majority faith, non-religious persons, women, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) community.” In identifying the repression of vulnerable groups, USCIRF explicitly maintains “it is important to recognize that this category of minorities also includes individuals who identify as non-religious—nonbelievers, atheists, humanists, and others—and often find themselves facing discrimination, or worse, because of government laws on the basis of religion.”

USCIRF debuted the USCIRF 2023 Annual Report on May 1. Its cover is aptly adorned by an Iranian woman protesting alongside the now iconic image of Mahsa Amini. Iranian morality police murdered Ms. Amini in September 2022 for “incorrectly” wearing a headscarf. In response, the women and girls of Iran have bravely led the fierce movement against the government’s decades-old theocratic fascism, even while being met with extreme violence and repression.

The report assesses international religious freedom conditions from 2022 and makes the following recommendations to the State Department:

CPCs: Maintain Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan; add Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam.

SWL: Maintain Algeria and the Central African Republic; add Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

EPCs: Maintain al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, Islamic State in West Africa Province, and Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin.

The USCIRF 2023 Annual Report contains issues of particular concern and relevance to the international humanist community and, throughout the report, there are references to the conditions humanists, atheists, nontheists, and the unaffiliated are facing globally. These include observations of discrimination, continual enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy laws, persecution, and imprisonment, among other social and official consequences.

Particularly of note, USCIRF highlights the situation of Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria and a USCIRF Religious Prisoner of Conscience (RPOC). Bala was arrested on April 28, 2020, and held without charge for 462 days. On April 5, 2022, Bala was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. The Kano State High Court of Nigeria convicted him on eighteen counts of causing public disturbance in connection with “blasphemous” social media posts. Bala’s case has been highlighted in the BBC documentary entitled, The Cost of Being an Atheist. Read the American Humanist Association’s (AHA) statement condemning Bala’s sentencing here.

This year’s report additionally continues a trend of explicitly spotlighting humanists in its data distinction, which began in USCIRF’s 2021 Annual Report. Specifically, humanists are denoted in USCIRF’s Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List, which provides information on persons targeted for their religion or beliefs from countries USCIRF recommends for CPC or SWL status and EPCs. This recognition should help greatly improve the visibility of humanists facing harassment and persecution internationally.

Over the past few years, AHA staff built stronger relationships with USCIRF, working toward greater representation of the humanist community and the repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws affecting nonbelievers and those of faith alike. That’s why the AHA is pleased to see the heightened recognition of the international humanist community in USCIRF’s annual reports and looks forward to continuing to work and fight for the freedom of humanists globally.

USCIRF publishes reports and factsheets, holds public hearings and briefings, and hosts events on various topics related to freedom of religion or belief. For more information on USCIRF, visit its website. Additional information on the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom can be found here.