2021 Report on International Religious Freedom

Wednesday, June 9, 2021
REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Director of Outreach and Policy, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Director of Research and Policy, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Dwight Bashir, director of outreach and policy, and Elizabeth K. Cassidy, director of research and policy, both of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), present findings and recommendations on religious freedom from the 2021 USCIRF annual report.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s webinar is on the record, and the audio, video, and transcript will be made available on our website, cfr.org, and on our iTunes podcast channel “Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. 

We’re delighted to have Dwight Bashir and Elizabeth Cassidy with us today to talk about the 2021 report on international religious freedom. Dwight Bashir is director of outreach and policy at USCIRF, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he oversees congressional communications and outreach efforts. While at USCIRF, Dr. Bashir has led or participated in numerous fact-finding mission internationally, has traveled widely throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Before joining USCIRF, he worked with the United Nations and the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy on conflict prevention, with the U.S. Department of State advisory body on religious freedom and tolerance and reconciliation, and with the Baha’is of the United States and other non-governmental organizations advocating international human rights. 

Elizabeth Cassidy is director of research and policy at USCIRF, where she oversees research and publications and development and promotion of USCIRF’s policy recommendations. She conducts periodic training sessions for officials from the State Department, Homeland Security, and Justice departments, and served on the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group in 2014 to 2015. And she’s also worked as a legal consultant to human rights NGOs in Namibia, and taught courses at the University of Namibia, and Princeton University, and Seton Hall University School of Law. 

So Dwight and Elizabeth, thanks very much for being with us. You have just issued this report on religious freedom. It would be great if you could take us through your findings and recommendations. So Dwight, why don’t we first turn to you?

BASHIR: Good afternoon. Thank you Irina, and thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations for providing this opportunity to discuss the Commission’s key findings and recommendations from our twenty-second annual report. The report, released just over a month ago, provides a snapshot of where religious freedom is improving or in danger, and what the U.S. government can do to encourage positive change. Key findings, recommendations, and analysis for each country chapter represent insights and information gained through numerous areas including use of hearings, fact-finding trips, research meetings with government officials, both in the U.S. and abroad, human rights advocates, and religious leaders. The annual report’s main focus is on two groups of countries those that USCIRF recommends the State Department designate as “countries of particular concern,” or “CPCs.” And those are these that USCIRF recommends the State Department place on a special watch list. 

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created us and the State Department office, CPCs are countries whose governments engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. The special watch list is for countries where the violation is being two but not all three of the systematic ongoing, egregious tests for CPC status. This year, our report covers twenty-six countries based on 2020 conditions. We recommend fourteen of these countries for CPC status, and this includes the ten countries that the State Department has already designated as CPCs, most recently in December. These are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In addition, USCIRF believes that the State Department should designate four other countries as CPCs and those are India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam. We recommend that the State Department maintain on the special watch list two countries, Cuba and Nicaragua, and add ten other countries to that list: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. 

Though the annual report focuses on the worst countries in the world for religious freedom, we also highlight improvements where appropriate, and we certainly saw some positive movement in some countries in 2020. This year, in fact, we determined that three countries, Bahrain, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, did not meet the high threshold for inclusion on the special watch list based on developments in 2020. However, religious freedom concerns remain in all three countries, and USCIRF will continue to closely monitor them on an ongoing basis. The cover of our report this year depicts the global reach of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has not only impacted the global economy, travel, and other sectors, but also international religious freedom. Across the world, public health measures to control the virus’s spread restricted in-person gatherings, including religious gatherings, and in many cases, but certainly not all, these measures comply with international human rights standards protecting freedom of religion and belief around the world. Such measures must be necessary to protect the legitimate state interest of preventing disease proportionate to meeting that aim, but must not be discriminatory, and must be lifted once the crisis has passed. 

As I mentioned earlier, we were encouraged to see some improvements in some countries last year, and I want to spend a minute on Sudan. In Sudan, the transitional government that took power in 2019 took substantial steps towards ending severe violations. It also continues to closely engage with us and other international stakeholders in doing so. In February 2020, right before the pandemic hit us, I was part of a USCIRF delegation to Khartoum to assess conditions on the ground and to engage with the transitional leadership, including Prime Minister Hamdok and his cabinet. We were really encouraged by the evident progress at that time, as well as by further improvements as the year progressed. And most notably, in July, the transitional government adopted the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms Act which repealed the apostasy law, and did flogging for blasphemy, banned female genital mutilation, and permitted non-Muslims to drink alcohol, and abolish the guardianship law that required women to get a permit from a male guardian when traveling abroad with their children. We were also encouraged to see the continued prioritization of religious freedom and U.S. policy in the past year. In June of 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order on advancing international religious freedom, which more explicitly integrated the issue into U.S. diplomacy and development efforts. February 2020 marked the official launch of the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, a network of like-minded countries committed to opposing religious persecution and advancing freedom of religion or belief for all. 

Unfortunately, religious freedom violations in China, and the extension of its influence far beyond its borders represent possibly the most troubling development in 2020. The Chinese Communist Party’s increasing hostility towards religion has resulted in campaigns to Sinicize Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and Christianity to rid them of alleged foreign influences in the Xinjiang region. The Communist Party’s campaign has translated into mass atrocities against Turkic Muslim minorities, and in particular the Uighur people. We were in full support of the State Department’s decision in January of this year to designate China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as genocide and crimes against humanity. However, our report also found that China’s growing overseas influence and activities also negatively affected religious freedom and other human rights far beyond its borders. The government exercises its broad economic and geopolitical influence to pressure foreign countries near and far to accept its demands without concern for human rights. Tactics include things like harassment, intimidation, and detention of human rights activists, ethnic and religious minorities, and other critics and dissidents. I’ll now turn the floor over to my colleague Elizabeth Cassidy to speak about our recommendations related to non-state actors, our victims database, and Religious Prisoners of Conscience project. Several other broader trends to be identified as immediate threats to religious freedom globally, and some key recommendations for the Biden administration. Elizabeth.

CASSIDY : Thanks so much, Dwight, and thanks also to Irina and CFR for inviting us to come join this session today and also to everyone who’s participating. While the USCIRF annual report focuses primarily on the governments that have been the worst violators of religious freedom, we also highlight non-state actors who have engaged in religious persecution and violence. The annual report also covers what are called “entities of particular concern,” or “EPCs” under the International Religious Freedom Act. To qualify for designation as an EPC, a non-state group must commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violation of religious freedom, and they must also exercise significant political power and territorial control the outside the control of a sovereign government and employ violence in pursuit of their objectives. This year, USCIRF recommended that the State Department re-designate seven entities as EPC, which the State Department most recently designated in December of 2020. They are Al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or ISGS, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, or JNIM, and the Taliban. Although we remain concerned by particularly severe violations of religious freedom by other non-state groups, we concluded that they did not meet the statutory requirements of significant political power and territorial control in 2020. 

During 2020, USCIRF has also continued to prioritize our Religious Prisoners of Conscience project,t or RPOC project, and through this project, we highlight individuals in prison for exercising their freedom of religion or belief, and USCIRF commissioners advocate and work for their release. Religious prisoners of conscience were directly and deeply impacted by the cross winds of COVID-19, which both exacerbated and highlighted the deplorable conditions of the prisons where far too many of them remain held. We remain deeply concerned about the health and safety of RPOCs as COVID continues to ravage prisons globally. At the same time, we were heartened by efforts in several countries to reduce prison populations for health reasons, which led to religious prisoners of conscience being released or placed under house arrest. USCIRF also has steadily been building and expanding our Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List, or FoRB, Victims List. This list maintained on our website was mandated by the 2016 Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. It now contains more than one thousand profiles of victims of religious persecution to help ensure they receive the public attention and focus that their cases deserve. 

The 2021 USCIRF annual report also discussed key religious freedom trends around the world, which often take root or are born out in countries that do not meet the statutory criteria for designation as either CPCs or placement on the special watch list, the State Department special watch list. Dwight already spoke about one of those key trends, the long arm of China. Of course, the most prominent global trend and story in 2020 was the COVID-19 pandemic, governments took sweeping action to protect individuals and communities including imposing restrictions that impacted the practice of one’s religion and faith. Many of those restrictions fell under and are justified as public health exceptions defined in international law. But other restrictions, such as cutting off internet or cell service, had a draconian and dire impact on already vulnerable religious communities, including millions internally displaced or in refugee camps. The pandemic also unfortunately fostered an alarming wave of misinformation and intolerance targeting religious minorities, including anti-Semitism.

Finally, in terms of U.S. policy, the Biden administration has committed to championing human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and centering the safety and dignity of religious communities as foreign policy priorities. USCIRF has made specific recommendations in every chapter of our annual report to the Biden administration and to Congress to effectuate this commitment. Those recommendations include, for example, urging the administration to definitively and publicly conclude whether the atrocities committed and still ongoing against the Rohingya people by the Burmese military constitute genocide and crimes against humanity, and to act accordingly, as with the State Department’s recent determinations regarding China’s genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighur and other Turkic Muslims. 

In February, USCIRF held a hearing on refugees fleeing religious persecution and examined ways in which the U.S. government could better support refugees and asylum seekers. Consistent with USCIRF recommendations, the Biden ministration announced in February its intent to increase the annual ceiling for refugees resettled to the United States from abroad for the current and upcoming fiscal years. It also indicated that it was considering creating several new priority categories for access to the resettlement program, including for certain severely persecuted religious groups. This would be a measure that USCIRF would welcome. We were encouraged that President Biden raised the ceiling for this fiscal year to 62,500, and we also welcomed President Biden’s executive order signed in February initiating a review of the expedited removal process, the implementation of what USCIRF has monitored under IRFA over the years, and has long found to inadequately protect asylum seekers. 

Finally, it’s become abundantly clear in recent years how vital IRF leadership positions, International Religious Freedom leadership positions, are to the advancement of religious freedom as an essential human right. We urge the Biden administration to move promptly by nominating and appointing well-qualified individuals to key international religious freedom vacancies, and that the Senate quickly confirm those requiring confirmation. Those vacancies include the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department, the special advisor for IRF on the National Security Council staff, the special coordinator for Tibetan issues, and the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. USCIRF also has stressed the importance of the administration providing them with the financial resources and staff needed to fulfill their mandates. Thank you. We’ll end our remarks there, and look forward to answering questions from the members of the group.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. That’s a great presentation. And we’ll go to all of you now for your questions. You can either raise your hand and ask a question, or you can type up your question, write your questions in the Q&A box. I already see that we have three or so. And if you’re on an iPad, you can click on the “More” button and you can raise your hand in that window. So I’m going to take the first question from, let’s see, Dr. Tarunjit Butalia of Religions for Peace: “I continue to be concerned about the rise of right-wing religious nationalism in South Asia, particularly in the largest democracy of the world, India. Could you kindly address why India was moved into the category of CPC?”

CASSIDY: Sure, thank you. Thank you for that question. India was actually moved into the category of a CPC recommendation last year in USCIRF’s 2020 report and then we reiterated this, the CPC recommendation, again in the 2021 annual report. A key factor was the Citizenship Amendment Act, the discriminatory law that was enacted in 2019, providing preference to certain religious groups for citizenship. We also have long been concerned in India with issues of mob violence, where mobs act with impunity and target religious minorities, and legal structures that prohibit conversions or restrict conversions, and a worrying new development, there were several laws enacted during 2020 to restrict interfaith marriage, which resulted in numerous arrests during the year. Another concern expressed in the 2021 chapter was is the increasing repression of dissent, including those who spoke out against the Citizenship Amendment Act and its discrimination against Muslims, and those who otherwise advocated for minority rights or religious freedom. There also has been a tightening of the space for civil society organizations NGOs in India, including restrictions on foreign contributions, contributions from abroad, and the closing of human rights and religious humanitarian NGOs.

FASKIANOS: Great. Okay, so next question comes from Victor. And people should raise their hand, to Victor Ghalib Begg, who is an author, philanthropist, and community leader: “My question is about respect for the holy spaces in Jerusalem, a city that holds a special place among the Abrahamic religions, especially in light of the recent attack on Al-Aqsa. What’s the position of the State Department such actions add to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia?”

BASHIR: Thank you for that question. I can address that. First, I just want to specify that USCIRF, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is separate from the State Department. So I can’t speak for the State Department, but I can reference you to the release of their report last month, as well. There was a question on this issue and of course, in effect, their response was such that, peace is vital because of the ongoing conflict, and so on, peace is vital to getting to respect for broader human rights and religious freedom. This is an issue we’ve tracked for many years, the situation there, things flare up at different times, we’ve seen a flare up recently, which is reprehensible to see people being denied, but at the same time, it’s extremely complicated security measures and concerns that factor in. But we certainly would like to see a movement here on the broader conflict because that, indeed, a lot of the data that we followed over the years demonstrates when there’s broader conflict, broader instability, extremism, that diminishes human rights protections, including religious freedom. So if we can’t address these broader pressing crises, then unfortunately, it’s going to be the human rights that are affected and are impacted severely.

FASKIANOS : Thank you. Don Frew has written a question, but he’s also raised his hand. So Don, why don’t you just unmute yourself, say who you are, and ask your question.

FREW: Hi, I’m Don Frew, with the United Religions Initiative, but also with the Covenant of the Goddess. So I’m curious, practitioners of Neo-Pagan witchcraft fall under the “witchcraft” category that’s currently illegal in many African and South Asian countries, where it’s often punishable by death. And I know from personal experience, that the Wiccan communities in such countries are very underground. Does USCIRF look at violence against accused witches in assessing a country or non-governmental entity? Is that included under religious rights?

CASSIDY: Thanks, thanks for that question. I can start and then if you, Dwight, want to chime in. But the short answer is yes. Under a freedom of religion or belief, as protected under international standards, it’s an individual right to believe or not to believe as one’s conscience dictates. And very clearly under the international texts and interpretations, it applies to all beliefs. There’s not sort of distinctions made between quote unquote, “traditional beliefs” versus “non-traditional beliefs,” etc. Some countries do legally make those distinctions, but they’re problematic under the international standards. So we have reported on accusations of witchcraft or sorcery in different countries in our reporting, and I believe the State Department has as well. And there are reports over the years in different places, so absolutely, as long as people are peacefully practicing their own beliefs and exercising their conscience, it is protected.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, let’s go to Karenna Gore, who has her hand raised.

GORE: Hi, thank you so much for that wonderful presentation. Thank you to Irina and the Council on Foreign Relations as well. I’m Karenna Gore with the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and my question is about indigenous peoples, and whether or not there’s consideration given to the sacred sites, which I’m particularly thinking of the Amazon. We know that, that 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in the hands of indigenous people. And in many cases, that’s the equivalent of a house of worship. And I know that you track non-state actors, as well as state actors. And I’m just wondering if there’s been consideration given to thinking about the religious freedom of these indigenous peoples, when their sacred sites are being decimated at such a fast rate?

BASHIR: I’ll just hit on this and see if Elizabeth wants to go further. But yeah, that’s a very good question. And, and I want to also stress that freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief, we use these international standards in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s a broad protection. So this is about those who believe in something or not belief, non-believers, but, of course, indigenous believers fit into that category. In fact, we’ve done  some research on, particularly in Africa, and we’re doing further research on some of the traditional indigenous religions. In some countries like Nigeria, there’s more of a focus on Muslims and Christians, but there’s a whole element there of indigenous faiths and folklore and other traditional beliefs. And this is not uncommon also in South America, like you’re seeing in Brazil there. So this certainly includes that we our mandate tends to focus on the most severe in terms of state actions or non-state actors that are violating religious freedom, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t elements here of other Indigenous beliefs all over the world that could be impacted, that, to be frank, that we may not be fully aware of or even aware at all, in some cases. So, a lot of our information is as good as we get through our civil society partners through travel in these countries. But if there is information that is dire or for that matter where there’s concerns about indigenous face, we would love to hear from that.

FASKIANOS: Great, I’m going to go to Thomas Walsh next, who is with the Universal Peace Federation. His question is, “whether there’s a category for what might be called intra-religious violations of religious freedom, that is a violation within a particular religious tradition?”

CASSIDY: That’s a great question. I wouldn’t say a separate category, but certainly those types of things absolutely could qualify as violations of religious freedom, and often do, because, of course, as I mentioned, religious freedom as a human right is an individual right. It’s also got collective aspects and protects the rights of people to come together in a group and worship, and protects the rights of religious communities to freely manage their affairs, but ultimately, it is also an individual right, which means that people have the right to dissent or choose not to follow the principles perhaps that a broader religious community does. So, where if someone, especially if the state is taking action against someone for following a different religion than that sort of approved or a different sector or denomination for that approved by the state, absolutely. Or if a non-state actor that violates on or meets the categories that we that we talked about of territorial control, and all of that, it would certainly rise to the level of our attention, but there are a lot of things that are happening that are also violations of religious freedom, even if they don’t hit that particularly severe level. So absolutely, there can be conduct within families, within religious communities, that absolutely is a violation of somebody else’s religious freedom. If it’s private parties, you then get into the question of, what is the state doing or not doing to protect that person, to punish the perpetrators, etc.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Thomas Uthup, who is with Friends of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations: “Is it effective to persuade governments about the economic benefits of religious freedom?”

BASHIR: I think that’s one of the most important arguments that can be made, frankly, and we’ve seen growing correlations at the very least, if not causations. But there’s been studies on that, started years ago by the Pew Foundation, but other work that’s been done to demonstrate that when you see countries that are protecting and adhering to human rights and religious freedom, freedom of religion and belief, there’s more prosperity, there’s economic benefits, there’s a lot of other connections there. But certainly, there’s many countries where segments of the population are deprived from contributing to their societies, because of that deep-seated discrimination or persecution. One that comes to mind is in Iran, the largest religious minority population there, the Baha’i community, who are seen as apostates, are effectively denied from contributing to many elements of society. And in the earlier days, when Baha’is had some modicum of freedom, they would contribute in many sectors and would be highly educated and so on. One example, India and Pakistan comes to mind, another community that’s so disadvantaged, but you start seeing that by depriving significant elements of your population, that impacts economic prosperity. So there’s some compelling arguments and some studies have been done that I think warrant that argument for sure.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Chloe Breyer has her hand raised. 

BREYER: Yes, thank you so much for this very interesting, for the report this year, and my name is Chloe Breyer and I direct the Interfaith Center of New York. My question is about defamation and blasphemy. And just how I mean, so it’s a larger question, I guess, but how does USCIRF deal with an issue that often is used by majority traditions to silence dissent, either by other traditions or by dissenters within their own traditions?

CASSIDY: Thanks, Chloe. that’s a great question, and it’s something that’s been a focus of USCIRF’s work for a long time, including a focus of my work for the fourteen years that I’ve been on the Commission’s staff. So blasphemy laws are a major issue and a major source of violations of both religious freedom and freedom of expression. And we’ve done extensive work on advocating against blasphemy laws over the years, including two major studies on that, the first one came out in 2017, and looked at the texts, analyzed the texts of the blasphemy laws and all the countries that we could find them in and sort of drew out the different ways that they violate international human rights principles. And then the second follow-up study, which was just released last year, looked at the enforcement of blasphemy laws in the eighty-four countries that have them, and the countries where they are most frequently enforced, of which there are about ten, and who are the most frequent victims, who are the most frequent perpetrators, what kind of cases are often involved. But you’re absolutely right, they are used as a means to both punished dissenters within, often within a majority faith that the state is protecting or enforcing, or used against religious minorities. They are also often a tool, false accusations can be used just simply for personal scores. So both in theory and in practice, really a source of severe human rights violations.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, I’m going to take the next written question from Jonathan Golden, who’s at Drew University. His question is about import-export of religious conflicts. “We see conflicts for South Asia, Mideast playing, that’s a typo. Are these treated as one and the same? Or are they classified differently in freedom reports?”

BASHIR: Well, I mean, if I understand the question correctly, I think it’s a question of how do conflicts from different parts of the world impact religious freedom, and that kind of gets back to what I alluded to earlier. Certainly, where you see ongoing conflicts, I mean, I think one that really stands for incentives in Afghanistan, where you see the U.S. is ramping up withdrawal there, and what are the implications for some of the minorities or the Shia Muslim population, Hindus, Sikhs, almost extinct in a country like Afghanistan, that the prospects of the Taliban coming to power in some regard. So by these types of groups who are being engaged with and this is an alarm bell for religious freedom and broader human rights, frankly, you see this in other parts, where extremist groups gain a foothold. And you hear about the non-state actors that we recommend that the State Department has designated, that have some kind of territorial control and are either fueling conflict, but it’s not limited to non-state actors, either. There are some situations there where, look what’s going on in Syria, northeast Syria, and there’s several parties to the conflict there, where religious freedom is severely impacted. So there is no doubt where there are ongoing armed conflicts, whether non-state actors or state actors are involved, this always has an impact on broader human rights, certain human rights protections, what some of the most vulnerable, in these circumstances are the religious and ethnic minorities who, like we saw in Iraq once Saddam was lifted from power and extremist groups started coming in and now we have the Iran-backed militias, still to this day, impacting some of the small: the Yazidis, the Christians (incomprehensible), in some of these small minorities who were living in relative freedom to some regard, even though that was a very tenuous situation. But yes, when conflict erupts, unfortunately, the most vulnerable will be impacted and it can have dire circumstances.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Mark Hetfield has his hand raised.

HETFIELD: Thank you, Irina, and question for Elizabeth and Dwight, if they could quickly go over the findings of the Commission, or the recommendations of the Commission, with regard to refugees and asylum seekers and how this relates to the mandate of the Commission.

CASSIDY: Sure, thanks. Thanks for the question, Mark, nice to have you on the line. So it relates in a couple of ways. The law that we mentioned, the International Religious Freedom Act, it does have a section on refugee and asylum provisions, recognizing that refugee resettlement, aiding refugees abroad is one way that the U.S. government can help the victims of religious persecution, among victims of the other forms of persecution that people are fleeing, so it’s been a longtime focus of the Commission’s work, and advocating for strong U.S. refugee resettlement program, which I alluded to in my opening remarks. Over many years, USCIRF has been a strong and a bipartisan, our commissioners are bipartisan from both parties, and we on the staff are nonpartisan, is a strong bipartisan support for that program. And also advocating for humanitarian aid abroad from the U.S. to displaced minorities. There’s a second aspect of USCIRF’s work related to refugee and asylum issues, that the law, the International Religious Freedom Act, authorized USCIRF to do a study of the expedited removal process, which is the summary removals that are done at the border, when somebody who’s not authorized to enter the United States arrives on whether the protections that are supposed to be built into that system for asylum seekers are actually being complied with. And in a number of studies over the years, including a major one that Mark worked on early on, USCIRF unfortunately has found that those protections are not being implemented, and made a number of recommendations to improve the quality of the interviewing processes. And so we’re hopeful that by demonstration as well as looking at that process, so we’re hopeful to see some improvements made as a result of the executive order that I mentioned in my remarks.

FASKIANOS: Great. We’ll take the next written question from Majed Ashy at Merrimack College: “With COVID-19, or vaccinations in general, there have been conflicts between scientific findings and religious views. Is there a discussion of religious freedom when in conflict with science?”

BASHIR: Interesting question. I mean, I’ll be very brief here. Maybe Elizabeth wants to jump in. But on this question, I would say that we look at it from the question of is there freedom of religion or belief, our governments using the pretext of COVID-19 and trying to, for public health reasons, because there are exceptions, as Elizabeth alluded to, to limit religious freedom? That’s what we look at. We did see some examples where they punished groups, like a group that’s being accused of starting COVID-19. And we saw some things happen in South Korea with a small minority there, as well as Sri Lanka, a lot of misinformation flying around. But as far as the science, we don’t really get into that aspect. But certainly, there have been some examples, and we document those in our report where some countries have used the pretext to crack down on disfavored minorities and disfavored dissidents as well.

FASKIANOS: Okay, great. I’m going to go to Bani Dugal of the Baha’i International Community:  “Thank you for this excellent presentation. USCIRF sometimes visit to New York during UNGA in September, which is UN General Assembly, do you plan to visit this year? And particularly, any plans for some event?” I think this is the million-dollar question for all of us, as to what’s happening in September, as we’re opening up. But do you want to preliminarily say any thinking?

BASHIR: I mean, I’m happy to just jump in quick, I think that’s a question in the arenas that we’re all looking at. We’re looking at transitioning ourselves that we - one thing I would like to highlight is our work this past year, really, for fifteen months, as many of you have, has been remote, we haven’t been able to travel, to do the fact-finding missions, but we find other ways. We’ve actually ramped up our public activity in terms of hearings and events and various kinds of - we started a podcast last year, we touch on four issues, freedom of religion or belief issues in countries, and dramatic concerns around the world. But at this point, I think it’s a little preliminary to know to what extent we’ll be able to get to some of this in person. I mean, obviously it’s easier to travel domestically right now, but I can tell you that we’re itching to get back out there and to engage in person, we were talking before the event today, I think we missed the kind of discussions on the margin rather than kind of in the settings where you can have a discussion in front of larger audiences. But you missed the after events from before. So hopefully, we get back to that. But at this point, we don’t have any immediate plans to be there at this time in person.

FASKIANOS: Great. Dr. Butalia has another question, while we stand by for others: “It seems that some democracies across the world are getting better at limiting religious freedom for minorities for political motivations. Do you see any patterns here? And if so, what can the U.S. government do about it?”

CASSIDY: I can start on that one, and then Dwight can chime in if you’d like. It’s a great question. I think yes. There are often political considerations that come in some of these things, I mean, ultimately, for us, we’re looking at the violation, the impact, so whether it’s, the motivation, may be less important. But certainly we do see governments where sort of religious nationalism has become kind of a political issue, and government officials are campaigning and speaking and taking actions to sort of favor and get the support of a particular religious community, often the majority religious community, which can play out in ways to the detriment of minority faiths.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, I’m going to go to Ani Zonneveld, from Muslims for Progressive Values: “The EU has a trade policy that ties priorities of trade with states that adhere to international human rights norms. Is this a possibility for the U.S., and it’s something USCIRF is thinking about and advocating for?”

BASHIR: That’s a really good question, Ani, thank you for asking that. And I’ll use that opportunity to talk about a few broad tools that do exist as far as kind of punitive measures as such, is really what that is saying, if you don’t respect human rights and religious freedom, it’ll impact trade or economic aid, and so on. And we have over the years made recommendations, I think, on this issue. In fact, we held some hearings this past year on looking at this aspect in the China situation, what’s going on in Xinjiang with the Uighurs. And we started seeing that U.S. companies in the supply chain are actually in effect, aiding and abetting some of what the Chinese are doing with surveillance and certain materials that they’re providing, and kind of really put a spotlight on this, to demonstrate that, hey, we’ve got a significant relationship with China, significant trade and so on. But, to get a free pass on this is reprehensible if it’s at the expense of a whole significant population. 

We’ve also looked at the issue of the potential of conditioning aid, that’s a bit of a sensitive area, because many countries that need humanitarian aid is one thing, but there also is economic support there that we give to a lot of countries, for example, Egypt and Pakistan come to mind right away, where there are significant religious freedom concerns. So we have made recommendations along those lines, we also have made recommendations, we’ve seen many implemented on the use of targeted sanctions under the global Magnitsky law, as well as other tools, executive orders that exist when there are violations. And we saw both the previous administration already, the Biden administration, and this is not that new, because even during the Obama administration, before that, when these things started coming into play, there was some activity there, but this didn’t affect our travel bans and asset freezes on officials who are involved in severe violations. So it’s an important question, I think that trade is only one element of what in effect the consequences, but this gets to the other element, which I’ll just touch on, maybe Elizabeth wants to expand on is the issue of waivers. When a country’s named a CPC, they’re almost I think, more than half now have waivers of any action, including Nigeria, the latest. So in effect, you’re saying, hey, they have severe violations, but there are no consequences, economic or otherwise. And I think that sends the wrong message. Elizabeth, do you want to follow up?

CASSIDY: Yeah, just to build on that. That’s a great question. As you know, one of the tools that the U.S. government has under the International Religious Freedom Act is these designations, these “Countries of Particular Concern” designations, but five of the ten that are currently designated have these waivers in the interest of national security. So the whole point of IRFA was that this designation came with some sort of action. And that it was meant to, that that action was meant to sort of encourage the country to make changes. And right now, there are mostly waivers or equal to waivers, and something including countries such as Pakistan and Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. So we’ve called for the U.S. to take some sort of unique policy action, including there’s a tool in the law that’s really been underused, what’s referred to as a “binding agreement” where the U.S. should negotiate an agreement with this country. And we’ve often urged that it could involve some aid, that in exchange for this aid on these certain issues, the government would agree, say the government of Pakistan or the government of Nigeria would agree to take certain actions to address the violations. So while we welcome the fact that in recent years, there have been a number of countries that the State Department has added to their CPC list, which is an improvement. There was a long period of time under the existence of IRFA, where it was just static, none added, none taken away. The naming of those countries isn’t necessarily going to be enough, especially once they’ve been named once before, the naming isn’t necessarily going to be enough to encourage the country to take the actions that the government needs to take to address the problems.

OPERATOR: As a reminder, to ask a question, please click on the raise hand icon on your Zoom window. When you are called on to speak, please accept the “unmute now” button, then proceed with your name, affiliation, and question. You may also submit a written question via the Q&A icon on your Zoom window at any time. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Great. Chloe Breyer has a follow up question: “Can you talk specifically about the Uighurs in China, pressuring UAE and other countries to abduct the Uighurs and force them to China?”

CASSIDY: Yeah, I can start on that. That is absolutely a problem that we’ve seen in a number of countries. As Dwight mentioned, one of the trends we highlighted in the report this year was the transnational repression that China is engaged in, and its effect on religious freedom. But one of the manifestations of that has been mostly related around Uighur issues, but not only in China pressuring other governments to either send Uighurs back to China, which of course, sends them to a situation of persecution or torture in violation of international law and commitments under the Refugee Convention. But also to pressure countries at the UN not to sign on to statements criticizing, condemning the Chinese government for its policies related to religious freedom and its repression of Uighurs and other communities. So it really is a huge problem, I mean, it’s something a number of governments are aware of, and, obviously, there’s been a significant uptick of the U.S. and other like-minded countries taking action against China for these human rights violations, including targeted sanctions of the types that Dwight referred on Chinese officials, some specific to religious freedom violations, and in particular, sanctions coordinated with allies, which are very effective way of doing that. So it’s a good question and a big problem.

BASHIR: Let me just add to that briefly, if you don’t mind, because I think what she was also getting to in referencing the UAE is countries that selectively advocate for the rights of Muslims or other ethnic religious groups. It’s been really disappointing to see the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, that the organization that has some fifty-odd countries, predominantly Muslim countries in the world that has not taken a stand on this issue. And it has on some other selective issues, or individual governments who have said they’ve gone, a couple that come to mind are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia’s leaders there that traveled, oh, well, we saw everything’s fine. It’s really ludicrous that leaders of other countries in the region that have an opportunity to speak out are silent. I mean, the reality is China has its tentacles, including economic, security, and otherwise in so many countries around the world and is expanding. We really talk about that long reach because it has dire consequences. But the evidence is clear. I mean, we know we’re doing something right, because two of our commissioners, our chair and vice chair this past spring were sanctioned by the Chinese government. In fact, Secretary of State Blinken made a statement about that response because, as Elizabeth was alluding to, there were sanctions coordinated with several countries in Europe and Canada that issued sanctions along these lines for what’s going on in Xinjiang, and in response, they sanction two commissioners, and then a former commissioner was also just sanctioned a week and a half ago who had spoken out. So it’s getting more complicated because they’re aggressive, they’re willing to respond tit-for-tat, but in the end, it’s that truth to power issue there. If you’re going to be silent, if you’re going to take a pass on this, history will be clear down the line, those who are speaking out. We hear a lot from the Uighur community, one of our commissioners, Nury Turkel, is the first Uighur-American on the Commission funded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s been advocating his lifetime, you see people who appreciate the victims, so we’re not going to stop, and even when there are repercussions, as is the reality here, but it is disappointing that other governments that could speak out have not.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, let’s go to Azza Karam. 

KARAM: Thank you very much indeed, I very much enjoyed and learned a lot from Dwight and Elizabeth, and Dwight, hats off to you for making that last comment, which I completely support you on. I think you were being very diplomatic there. It’s actually downright shameful how some of the so-called Islamic countries or Muslim-majority countries have been noticeably silent. It’s reprehensible on every single level. I do have a question for both of you, however, and please feel free to address it not necessarily with the USCIRF official hat on, but from your respective experiences. I often find that there may well be, but it’s a question, there may well be a value added to all religious leaders from different religious institutions around the world. Actually speaking as one about this, about certain issues of religious freedom violations, especially, though not only on this Uighur situation, but also quite frankly, on a number of others. But I’m ever curious about the fact that it rarely ever gets the time of day in media. If one particular religious leader His Holiness Pope Francis to speak, that definitely gets covered, but when all hundred of them speak, it rarely gets any attention. So I have-my question is twofold. Do you find in your own work, that such statements where all faith leaders, prominent faith leaders representing their institutions, come together and speak as one openly against different kinds of violations? Is it a value to your work? And it is, do you see any particular value added to the more youthful religious leaders coming together to speak about certain religious violations? Does it make a difference? If it’s the elderly, or the formal representatives, or if it’s the younger ones? I’m just curious as to your own take on this, given your respective experiences. Thank you so much. And thank you, Irina, again, for another stellar communion.

CASSIDY: I can start on that and then Dwight’s been with the Commission even longer than I have, so we’ll let him let him think about it. But I do think it’s been helpful when there have been examples of that. I mean, particularly, obviously, inherent in religious freedom is this sort of assumption that there are religious differences. That’s part of the point. That’s why you need religious freedom. I mean, the people of different faiths, I mean, different people are not going to agree on everything. But I think, especially in the face of some of the egregious, the most egregious and most violent violations, it is helpful where there have been religious leaders who have come together, the Faith for Rights initiative, for example, to speak about how the principles inherent in international human rights norms are shared, amongst a number of other faiths and consistent with a number of those faiths because sometimes you do find, typically from the more repressive governments, claims that the human rights principles don’t represent their religion or their culture, and that there should be these exceptions carved out so, and I think it’s a really good question too, that your sort of second part about sort of the different generations of leaders. And I mean, my personal view is sort of as many as many voices from different ages, genders, backgrounds is helpful. I mean, and we try to when we’re interacting with both religious and civil society groups, make sure we’re hearing from a range of people. Because you’re right, in some contexts, it tends to be sort of older men who are in the leadership positions of some of these traditions and organizations, and they may not have the only perspective that we should be hearing from.

BASHIR: I’ll just jump on that because I have a similar perspective, but a little bit different take because I do believe it’s important that coalitions come together from various faiths and those who have no faith. Frankly, when you see things like the Marrakesh Declaration in Morocco, where a group of predominately Muslim leaders, religious and political, came together to say we want to ensure going back to the early days of Muhammad protecting the rights of non-Muslim minorities, that’s important when the Pope goes to the UAE and meets with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar in Egypt, that’s very positive. But I will say this, I mean, in some circles that I’ve been in over these nearly twenty years on this issue, there are certain circles when people are identified as “people of the Book,” so to speak, and that includes Muslims, Christians, and Jews, others sometimes fall short. I think it’s important to be overly inclusive here. There are younger religions, there’s always the issue of what is a religion? What is a faith community? What is spiritual movement? There’s all that, you can get into all these academic definitions. In the end, it’s about individuals speaking out collectively. And when you have universal standards as a benchmark, that’s important, because these have been hammered out over the decades, over the years, there’s got to be something there to refer to. So when you do have religious leaders, and I would say, let’s try to build on that, let’s make sure there’s non-traditional faces, let’s make sure there’s women, female leaders among these religions, part of this Elizabeth referred to, very important to send a message is that we’re talking about full inclusivity here. So that would just be my own two cents. My personal views on that one.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question, and it’s probably going to be the last question, from Satpal Singh from SUNY Buffalo: “Very often the role of influential countries like the United States against human rights violations and other countries as needed by their own trade and economic priorities. Are there any hopes of getting a better coordination on this issue among countries that care about human rights?”

CASSIDY: It’s a great question and an issue not just for the U.S., but for a lot of other countries that both care about human rights and obviously have trade, security, economic interests with countries that don’t uphold the human rights principles. I think there is room for more international collaboration on these sort of things. I think what both Dwight and I have talked about the situation with China and how we’re seeing increasing sort of coordinated effort, I think hopefully those will continue, obviously, China is one of the most egregious situations in the current time, but certainly not the only situation where there are real concerns. But this is always the tough question, and we at USCIRF have an easier job in some ways than our colleagues at the State Department and within the administration and other governments. Our mandate is to look purely at the religious freedom situation, and to make the recommendations that we think are warranted without having to take into account those, we know that those other things exist, and that’s why USCIRF was created, meant to be the voice on the human rights issue. But the reality is that the human rights issues do sometimes get outweighed by other concerns, but it won’t stop us from continuing to make those recommendations and to push those things, to try to get the U.S. to sort of think of creative ways where it can uphold its values, while also maintaining the relationships with those other countries.

FASKIANOS: Dwight, you get the last word.

BASHIR: I would just say, I actually just want to thank you, these are great questions. We appreciate this, feel free to be in touch with us. We want to encourage those of you who have constituencies or connections with folks around the world, I mean, we’re only as good as those who feed into our calculations on things but we really do pride ourselves in our work, objectivity, and integrity of our research and an information that we gather. So we appreciate these excellent questions, and I really look forward to hearing from you. Thanks so much.

CASSIDY: And if you haven’t already, please sign up, check out our website, you can watch our events and get our mailings and our reports and follow our work.

FASKIANOS: Great. Well, thank you Dwight Bashir and Elizabeth Cassidy for this presentation, of course, your report, which I know we all look forward to, and you can follow them. @USCIRF is the Commission’s Twitter handle, and you can also follow Dwight @DwightBashir and Elizabeth @EKCassidy. So, go there. You can follow CFR Religion and Foreign Policy on Twitter @CFR_Religion. And also, as always, please reach out to us, email [email protected] with suggestions on future webinars or events. We look forward to hearing from you. My apologies for all the good questions that came through in the chat or the Q&A box. I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to them. But they’re fodder for future conversations. So thank you all and have a wonderful day. 

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