Every year the US State Department, as required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, designates countries as “countries of particular concern (CPC)” over repressive policies relating to religious freedom. This year’s list includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, with Pakistan being placed on a “special watch list.”
Being named a CPC country is a serious issue, as it can lead not only to diplomatic pressure by the US government, but can also lead to economic sanctions and other painful consequences.
The American Humanist Association has worked diligently on international religious freedom issues, helping draft the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act that became law under President Obama in 2016 and amended the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include nontheists. (Specifically the Wolf Act protects “theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.”) The AHA was also instrumental in helping reintroduce H. Res. 349, which calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws worldwide.
And so while we’re glad to see the State Department taking the issue of international religious freedom seriously, advocates should be concerned by its treatment of countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and Russia.
Bangladesh has become infamous in recent years for its horrific treatment of atheists, and its permissive attitude towards those who attack atheists. Numerous atheist bloggers and activists have been publicly murdered by religious extremists in Bangladesh, and the government has been slow to prosecute the killers, if any prosecution is even undertaken at all. With such a destructive history on religious freedom issues, advocates for religious freedom should be surprised that Bangladesh isn’t a CPC country, or even a country on the “special watch list.”
Pakistan is also let off the hook in the latest report, as it has yet again escaped the CPC designation, despite sentencing those “guilty” of blasphemy to death and restricting religious freedom in general. But at least Pakistan is still mentioned in the report, unlike Egypt and Russia, two countries that are deserving of some sort of governmental criticism for their repressive religious policies.
Egypt is currently seeking to ban atheism, a move that should surprise no one considering its years-long campaign against nontheists, skeptics, and secularists. And Russia has arrested numerous atheists in recent years and is seeking to marginalize all religious groups except for the state supported Orthodox Church.
All of this is to say that while the State Department should be lauded for going after some of the worst offenders when it comes to religious liberty violations, they should still be pushed to turn up the heat on other countries that clearly violate the religious liberty of its people.