Webinar

Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: USCIRF's 2024 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

Tuesday, June 4, 2024
Internally displaced persons react as Pope Francis arrives to meet them at the Freedom Hall during his apostolic journey, in Juba, South Sudan, February 4, 2023. Thomas Mukoya/REUTERS
Speakers
Elizabeth K. Cassidy

Senior Strategic Advisor, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Presider

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

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record and the audio, video, and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org, and on Apple podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Stephen Schneck, Eric Ueland, and Elizabeth Cassidy with us to present the key policy recommendations from the 2024 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or known as USCIRF, and the foreign policy implications of international religious freedom today.

Stephen Schneck is one of nine commissioners of USCIRF, a position he has held since 2022. And yesterday, Dr. Schneck was elected to serve as USCIRF’s chair for 2024 and 2025. He currently serves on the governing Boards of Catholic Climate Covenant and the Catholic Mobilizing Network. He is a frequent commentator on Catholic matters for national and international news services. And previously, he worked for more than thirty years at the Catholic University of America and founded the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He was also the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network and served in the administration of President Barack Obama as a member of the White House Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Eric Ueland is also a commissioner of USCIRF, a position he has held since 2022. And he also was elected yesterday as USCIRF’s vice chair for the years of 2024 and 2025. Mr. Ueland is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a public advisor for the Paragon Health Institute, and a member of the board of advisors for the Center for Constitutional Liberty at Benedict College. He previously served as the acting undersecretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the State Department; and has held roles in the State Department Office of Legislative Affairs for President Donald Trump and the Domestic Policy Capital (sic; Council). And he has also served on Capitol Hill and the Senate for more than two decades.

And finally, Elizabeth Cassidy is a senior strategic advisor at USCIRF. She joined USCIRF’s staff in 2007, and previously served as a director of research and policy as well as a director of international law and policy. Ms. Cassidy’s expertise includes the International Religious Freedom Act, international organizational issues, international and comparative law issues, and refugee and asylum policy. And she has worked and consulted for nongovernmental organizations in Geneva, Switzerland and Namibia, and taught courses at Princeton University, Seton Hall University School of Law, and University of Namibia.

So thank you all very much for being with us to share USCIRF’s findings from your annual report. I thought first we would go to you, Steve, to talk about the new developments that were included in USCIRF’s latest annual report regarding international religious freedom, and what you have found in terms of violations of religious freedom in some of the countries, including in India, Nigeria, and Vietnam. And are there any good news stories that you can also share with us? So over to you.

SCHNECK: Thank you, Irina. And greetings to everyone. We really appreciate this opportunity to speak with you today about international religious freedom and its role in U.S. foreign policy. About a month ago the Commission, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, often called USCIRF, released its twenty-fifth annual report, marking twenty-five years since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA as it’s often called.

The annual report focused primarily on two groups of countries, those that USCIRF recommends the State Department designate as countries of particular concern, or CPCs, and those that USCIRF recommends the State Department place on its special watch list, or SWL. Under the IRFA Act, CPCs are countries whose governments engage in or tolerate—and I’m quoting here—systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. The SWL is for countries where violations meet two but not three of those criteria. This year, our report covers twenty-eight countries and reflects some important changes from last year.

First, USCIRF is recommending for the first time that Azerbaijan be designated a CPC. USCIRF has recommended the country for SWL status since 2020 and documented serious concerns there for many years prior to that. In our 2022 and 2023 annual reports, we noted increasing religious freedom violations by the government of Azerbaijan. Regrettably, this trend continued during 2023, leading USCIRF to conclude this year that the CPC standard had now been met for that country. We documented a significant and alarming increase in the number of prisoners there arrested on the basis of religion or belief during the year 2023. In addition, authorities are regularly accused of torturing or threatening sexual violence to elicit false confessions from detainees. With perpetrating such violations facing no accountability from the government.

A second change in this year’s report regards Syria. In Syria, the government’s violations of religious freedom have evolved to become more political and administrative in nature in recent years, including in 2023. As a result, USCIRF now recommends that country be placed on the special watch list rather than continue it as—under the designation as a CPC country. However, to be clear, nonstate actors in conflict with the Syrian regime continue to perpetuate particularly severe violations there. Another change this year is that USCIRF is recommending Kyrgyzstan for placement on the special watch list, for the first time. In 2023, Kyrgyz authorities increasingly enforced longstanding laws that penalize peaceful religious practices, such as online religious expression, collective worship, and possessing unauthorized religious materials. The government particularly targeted Muslims who practice a form of Islam that deviates from the state’s preferred interpretation.

The annual report also highlights deteriorating conditions in various countries. I’ll mention three particularly important ones today, which we recommend as CPCs but that the State Department does not so designate. The first of these is India. The Indian government continued to promote and enforce religious nationalist policies, including restrictions on citizenship, religious conversion, interfaith marriage, and cow slaughter. These laws and policies negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and indigenous and scheduled tribal peoples there. They have created as well a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence, particularly directed against Muslims and Christians. In 2023 we also saw an alarming escalation in the Indian government’s transnational repression targeting religious minorities and their advocates abroad, including two alleged assassination plots—one in the United States and the other in Canada.

Now let me turn to Nigeria. In Nigeria, we continue to see deteriorating religious freedom conditions including mass violence, killings, and the enforcement of blasphemy laws. Central government failure, state-level government repression, and religiously motivated violence by nonstate actors have turned parts of Nigeria into areas of extreme persecution, particularly in the north. The State Department did designate Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province, often called ISWAP, as entities of particular concern operating in Nigeria for the reign of terror that those organizations have unleashed on religious communities. However, that designation does not account for imprisonment and mob violence for alleged blasphemy, the mass killings in Nigeria’s middle belt, and the consistent failure of the Nigerian government to prevent or punish widespread violence impacting religious freedom.

And finally, let me turn to Vietnam. In Vietnam, authorities continued to persecute independent religious communities that do not comply with state control—the government-maintained, state-controlled religious organizations—and pressured independent groups to join them. Authorities interfered in the appointment of religious leaders, confiscated religious artifacts, restricted access to houses of worship, and generally harassed clergy, including priests. Officials also seized religious properties and gave them to state-controlled religious groups. The Vietnamese government continued to persecute ethnoreligious minority groups, such as the Montagnard and the Hmong Protestants, the Khmer Krom Buddhists, and the Hmong adherence of Duong Van Minh, In 2023, in fact, Vietnam implemented so-called Directive 78, the point of which is, and I quote, “to eradicate the Duong Van Minh sect.”

So, as you can see from the examples I’ve just mentioned, ensuring religious freedom or belief remains a significant challenge in a range of countries around the globe. One of the important functions of USCIRF—one of the important functions that USCIRF plays is to document these restrictions and to report unflinchingly on the conditions affecting people’s ability to practice, to teach, to worship, and to observe their beliefs in a manner of their choosing. So, back to you, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you.

And now we will go to Eric Ueland to talk about—you know, we’ve heard some top line reports on religious freedom now. Given the concerning state of affairs that is outlined in the report, what are the recommendations for the U.S. government and that you put forward in this report?

UELAND: Thank you very much for the question. Very much appreciate the opportunity to be here with the Council on Foreign Relations today, with Steve, and so many participants who care so passionately about religious freedom issues.

In addition to what Commissioner Schneck just highlighted, a key part of USCIRF’s congressional mandate is to make recommendations to the U.S. government to advance religious freedom around the globe. We noted in our annual report this year steps the U.S. government has taken to advance freedom of religion or belief in the past year, and certainly recognize those many accomplishments. At the same time, USCIRF is united in believing the Biden administration and Congress could be doing more, and must do more, at a time when religious freedom is under threat around the world.

First, we believe the State Department should designate Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam as CPCs, in addition to the twelve countries that it already designates. Chairman Schneck has laid out several of the systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations we see in those countries. We were particularly disappointed by the State Department’s failure to designate India and Nigeria as CPCs in its last round of designations. The violations in these countries are egregious and well documented, including in the State Department’s own International Religious Freedom Report.

Second, some of the countries of longstanding concern to USCIRF, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, have for many years received significant amounts of U.S. foreign assistance, yet for those countries religious freedom conditions remain extremely poor. Accordingly, USCIRF has recommended that the U.S. government conduct an assessment of the effectiveness of U.S. assistance in achieving religious freedom objectives abroad, especially in countries that are designated as CPCs or placed on the special watch list.

Third, we recommend further action on several thematic areas of concern. USCIRF has noted, for example, an alarming rise in transnational repression. Governments are pursuing religious minorities and religious freedom advocates beyond their borders all throughout the world. We’ve seen concerning attempts by India to target such people on U.S. soil, as Steve mentioned, and we’re deeply alarmed by the attempted kidnapping of an Iranian activist against mandatory hijab laws. In fact, in 2023 alone Iranian attacks on Jewish sites were foiled and Greece, Brazil, and Cyprus.

China operates over one hundred overseas police stations in at least fifty-three countries that we know of. In April 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice arrested and charged two individuals in connection with operating an illegal Chinese overseas police station in New York City. USCIRF has recommended the U.S. government assess foreign governments’ transnational repression activities and work to improve its policies to counter this threat, both domestically as well as by working multilaterally with our allies.

We also recommend that Congress support policies in the bipartisan Transnational Repression Policy Act to strengthen U.S. efforts to counter foreign governments’ cross-border repression on the basis of religion or belief. Relatedly, USCIRF is extremely concerned about the malign transnational influence of various repressive foreign governments, including their efforts to influence U.S. policy in Washington D.C. As a result, in our 2024 annual report, for the second year in a row, USCIRF has recommended that Congress take action to ban lobbying activities in the United States on behalf of foreign adversaries that engage in gross violations of religious freedom and other human rights, including China.

Finally, USCIRF urges the Congress to follow our example in addressing religious freedom holistically and in a bipartisan manner. Freedom of religion or belief for every person is foundational and fundamental to our values as Americans. It cuts across partisan and ideological lines and forms a core part of our national identity. It’s truly a privilege for me to participate in USCIRF’s work and see firsthand how Democratically appointed commissioners like Chairman Schneck and Republican appointees like myself can make common cause in advancing this freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

We certainly don’t see eye to eye on all issues, yet on the question of whether governments must ensure freedom of religion or belief to all, there is no difference between us. We urge Congress to follow this example and continue to pass bipartisan legislation in support of freedom of religion or belief abroad, speak out strongly together, and advocate not only for changes in countries who repress religious freedom, but seek the release of prisoners in jail, or worse, as a result of their faith, tradition, and belief. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Commissioner.

Now let’s go to you, Elizabeth, to talk about the policy tools available to the administration and Congress for advancing religious freedom abroad.

CASSIDY: Thanks so much, Irina. Appreciate this opportunity. And I echo the thanks of the chair and vice chair for having us again.

So IRFA provides a number of tools that the U.S. government can use to oppose religious persecution abroad and promote the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief. This includes the designations that the chair and vice chair have already talked about. So these are the country of particular concern designations, special watchlist designations, both of those for governments, or entity have particular concern designations for nonstate actors. These designations are intended to shine a light on the actions of egregious religious freedom violators and to ensure that their abuses don’t go unnoticed. The State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report also plays a key role in doing this, as does USCIRF’s reporting.

But highlighting abuses isn’t the only function of IRFA’s religious freedom designations. The law calls for the designations to be accompanied by some policy action by the United States government to meaningfully advance religious freedom in the country at issue. Unfortunately, too many of the State Department’s CPC designations are repeatedly named as such each year, but the designations bring little to no substantive change. In our view, the CPC designation should carry meaningful consequences.

Accordingly, USCIRF has recommended for a number of years, and continues to recommend, that the State Department should not continue to issue longstanding waivers based on other U.S. interests that have so far allowed the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan to avoid any consequences for being longstanding CPC-designated countries. IRFA provides various options for actions that the U.S. government can take in this regard that can be tailored to the particular situation and U.S. relationship with that country. And it also includes the U.S. government negotiating an agreement with that country to take steps to address the violations that have led to the CPC designation. And that is something that USCIRF recommends in several cases.

There also are other U.S. laws, such as the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, that can provide tools to be used in in these cases. USCIRF has consistently called on the U.S. government to increase the use of this sort of targeted sanctions to impose visa bans or asset freezes on specific individuals or foreign government entities that violate religious freedom. These actions provide an important specific accountability mechanism that imposes consequences on the people most directly responsible for the violations that have led to a CDC or special watchlist designation. We also believe that they can provide an important preventative purpose by lifting the veil of impunity that these violators often operate under.

We also recommend that the U.S. government pursue leadership on International Religious Freedom issues through multilateral actions. International organizations have provided a vital tool for the promotion of religious freedom abroad. For example, the U.S. was among the first U.S. government bodies to call for a U.N. fact-finding mission on Iran, which the U.S. government supported. It has found evidence of the Iranian government’s mistreatment and abuse of peaceful protesters asserting their freedom of religion or belief and concluded that crimes against humanity have likely been committed by the Iranian regime. We’ve also applauded joint sanctions by the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada on religious freedom violations in Iran, as well as joint sanctions used against violators in other countries.

We also continue to urge the U.S. government, the State Department, to continue actively participating and leading in the International Freedom of Religion (sic; International Religious Freedom) or Belief Alliance, or IRFBA, which is a coalition of thirty-eight countries that work together to promote religious freedom abroad. IRFBA delegation statements and public events send a powerful message about the universal nature of religious freedom and amplify U.S. efforts to promote this right. Joint efforts at the U.N. Human Rights Council, such as sponsoring resolutions and making recommendations through the Universal Periodic Review process, can also be effective ways in raising religious freedom issues multilaterally.

In terms of tools available to Congress, the commissioners have touched on some of those already. But very importantly, Congress—individual members of Congress can raise religious freedom issues through speeches, letters, legislation, resolutions, congressional delegations, and hearings. They also, as has been mentioned, can and should engage in advocacy for the release of prisoners of conscience held for the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief in foreign countries. We also would encourage Congress to hold hearings on issues of religious freedom conditions in countries outlined in USCIRF’s report, as well as hearings seeking greater oversight of U.S. assistance to those countries. Congress can also condition U.S. assistance to the governments of foreign countries on that government making improvements to its human rights practices, including regarding religious freedom.

I think I will end there. There’s a lot more we can talk about, but I want to allow it to go to the audience for questions. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much. So now we’re going to go to all of you for your questions, comments.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

So I am going to also just call upon and see—there’s a written question from Tenzin Dorjee, who is a former commissioner, who’s written a question. But it would be great if you could unmute and ask it yourself. Let’s see. Yes, so if you could unmute, Tenzin, that would be great.

Q: Hello.

FASKIANOS: There you go.

Q: Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: We can.

Q: Hello.

So thank you for, you know, the process and report on violations of religious freedom and belief across the world. And, you know, one of the things I’m very concerned about is the case of Panchen Lama Gedhun Ghoeky Nyim, who has been forcefully disappeared for thirty-five years. So I wonder if USCIRF has any update on his whereabouts. And another big concern is that China is using Buddhist Association of China with a special working committee to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and control the reincarnations of Tibetan lamas, especially the future reincarnation of his holiness the Dalai Lama. So I would like to hear USCIRF’s stance on these issues. Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Who wants to take that?

SCHNECK: I would be willing to address the Sinicization of Buddhism in Tibet, and that the Chinese government seems to be undertaking. Of course, this is a pattern that China is pursuing in regards to all religions within China. An effort to create a Chinese government-controlled religion for each of the various religions that are in China. However, the situation for the Tibetan Buddhists, of course, among the most dire illustrations of that process that’s called Sinicization of religion. And it’s continuing apace. And I have to say, it’s a matter of grave concern.

And moreover, there’s seems clear evidence that this—that this way of operating in regards to religion is being copied by other governments in the region in regards to religions as well. So we see hints of this, for example, in Vietnam. So I’m very, very concerned about the situation for the Tibetan Buddhists. And perhaps one of my colleagues can speak about this specific case.

UELAND: Sure, happy to pick up, Steve, where you left off. And, first, thanks very much for the question. Really appreciate it. I know that you’ve focused on this issue, amongst many others on religious freedom, for many years. This effort to Sinicize the Tibetan population, of course, is going on inside a larger effort to essentially repopulate—depopulate Tibet, and repopulate it with those who are in alliance with CCP. And the pattern of forced labor, disappearances, imprisonment, changing the education system—all the tools of a repressive state intent on taking the distinct nature of Tibet away from Tibetans, as well as completely altering how they are permitted to express their faith and worship, is a matter for reinforcing concern for us at USCIRF. In relation to this specific case, while we have no particular update we will follow up after this discussion with the Department of State to see what they know and what we can elicit, and hopefully be able to share with you and others who are very concerned about the circumstances and the fact that it has been 35 years.

Finally, obviously, today is the anniversary of a terrible, terrible set of atrocities carried out by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, as well as all throughout the country. Many of us who watched that at the time, watched in horror and astonishment. And the situation has only become worse. And today’s anniversary is a strong reinforcement that the work we do and the focus that we take, in concert with everybody participating today, is so critical to attempt to try to ensure that the Chinese Communist regime understands the consequences of its behavior, and that there is an alternative and much better path for them that they should take with their people. Their conduct, the genocide against the Uyghur population in their country and so much else that they do to impact, restrain, and extinguish the ability to freely exercise religion or faith, is breathtaking and deserves the strongest possible condemnation.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic.

I’m going to go next to Egon Cholakian, who has a raised hand. And there are some written questions. If you want to raise your hands, I will call on you rather than read it. So giving you that opportunity without calling you out.

Q: Can you—can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: We can. Thank you. If you could identify yourself, that would be fantastic.

Q: Egon Cholakian, retired Harvard and a former colleague of yours, Irina. It’s good to see you after so many years.

FASKIANOS: Likewise.

Q: (Laughs.) Let me share with you, I’m deeply intrigued. Thank you very much. The guests are really—it’s enlightening. This is backdoor information. I’ve never really been particularly active in the administrative end of the church, the government end of the church. And that’s deeply intriguing for me. I currently work in the USSR—former USSR, the Balkans, the Eastern Europe arena. And I am actively involved in dealing with the Eastern Europe Orthodox Church, which at times is a conduit of Mr. Putin. And I work in what you would ordinarily refer to as the cult sector. Entities that are often designated as religious cults have no religious basis whatsoever. It becomes the vehicle by which Mr. Putin and the Eastern Orthodox Church can go after those entities. And I am intimately involved in that activity right now, representing a number of the more prominent designated cults who are not religious whatsoever.

And their constituencies exceed 10,000, probably 50,000, thereabouts, a large—very large, active constituency. I’m over in Eastern Europe at least once a month. And I was speaking in Prague just a couple of weeks ago. And now they designate bodyguards to travel with me. Now I have a national security background, so I have some familiarity with turf of the industry. When I entered coming on today, I really thought, what would be touched upon with regard to the USCIRF—it doesn’t mention cults, the treatment of cults, because that is active worldwide. It’s a huge arena nowadays. France is active in this arena. Switzerland’s active. It’s all over the place. And I don’t know what—do you in any way, shape, or form touch upon this topic? And I’m throwing that out to anybody because it’s a hot topic, particularly when you’re in the Balkans.

And let me add one more dimension to it. When I deal with politicians in the Balkans, contemporary politicians, they are the first to mention, what about the church? They don’t worry about the competing parties, political entities. They worry about the church, demonstratively so. So this is—this is something that is an issue at hand. And I’m just hopeful you might have something to contribute to this conversation.

CASSIDY: Do you want me to start, and then the commissioners can chime in? So thanks very much for that question. We do actually discuss that issue in our—in various—in our reporting on various countries. Russia is one example. And, you know, we were only able to touch sort of at a surface level on what’s in our annual report today, but please, you know, look at our reporting on Russia, not only in our—in our report, but in the other standalone publications that we do.

But this issue of governments pejoratively designating certain religious groups as, quote/unquote, “cults,” and then going after them, does happen in a number of places, including Russia. And that’s been a feature of our reporting for a long time. In fact, we did a standalone report on the Russian government’s anti-cult efforts probably three or four years ago. And all of our reporting is available on our website. So I would urge you to go look at that. And, as you know, there’s a—there’s anti-cult efforts by the—by the French government, as well as—as well as in some other places.

FASKIANOS: Commissioner Schneck or Ueland? Or should we go to the next question?

SCHNECK: Just really briefly, of course, you know, one person’s cult is another person’s religion. And, you know, the freedom of religion or belief covers, not just long-established traditional religions, but it really is about freedom of conscience, at its core. That’s what—that’s what USCIRF is all about. And so we call out these situations where we find them. Many so—many so—many religions that are identified as cults in one country, other country, in France, in Russia, in Iran, you know, we recognize as, you know, you legitimate beliefs to be protected under freedom of religion. And so it’s something that we’re quite aware of and that we continued to follow with—and with a great deal of concern, especially given the situation of Russia.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Tom Reese, who has raised his hand, with Religion News Service.

Q: Thank you, Irina. And hi to Elizabeth and Steve, old friends. I’m Tom Reese. I’m a columnist with Religion News Service and was once a member of USCIRF.

My question is focused on the recent Indian elections and the role of Hindu nationalism there, and the use of political rhetoric, you know, against Muslims and other religious groups. This seems to me to be very disconcerting. And we typically think of authoritarian, dictatorial, undemocratic countries as being the principal focus of groups like USCIRF, but what we have here is the largest democracy in the world. And yet, the winner of the election using really antireligion—well, anti-Islam religion language and running for an election. I just wonder, what’s your—what’s your feeling about this? Just I—you know, I’m—just want to hear what you have to say. Thank you.

SCHNECK: I’m happy to start. First, let me say, hi, Tom. And just to identify Tom too was chair of USCIRF in the—in the Obama administration years. So hi, Tom. It’s good to hear your voice.

Yeah. If you read our reports—and I know you do, Tom—we’re very concerned about the situation in India. Moreover, we’re concerned about the situation in India because it seems as if it’s a pattern that’s starting to take hold globally, where majorities in a democracy are able to essentially weaponize one religion for political purposes to run roughshod over minorities. I think that clearly explains what the situation on the ground is in India right now. But we could look at several other places around the world and see similar sorts of things happening. In Turkey, for example. In Malaysia, for example. And even, you know, we’re seeing hints of this sort of thing in some European countries too. So it’s a matter of great concern, this nationalizing of religion, you know, through majority power to put down minorities of one sort or another. I’ll leave it there. I’m sure Elizabeth and Eric also would like to comment on that question.

UELAND: Thanks, Steve. Very much appreciate it. And, Tom, thank you very much for the questions.

So as those who’ve had a chance to review our reports see, we make a series of significant recommendations to the executive branch, including, of course, designating India as a country of particular concern with no sanction waiver, which unfortunately has yet to happen in this administration. But hope always can spring eternal. As well, we have pushed very squarely for targeted, appropriate sanctions against individuals or groups who act in ways that are so dangerous to religious freedom in India. And are attempting to encourage the administration, both with available tools under the Magnitsky Act and other outstanding laws, to take these steps forward so that people understand that this sort of behavior, and this sort of speech, and this sort of ultimate repression is nothing that finds favor with the United States government.

CASSIDY: And if I could just quickly add, Tom, great to hear your voice. And thanks for joining. It’s nice to have two former USCIRF chairs on this call and asking questions today—you and—you Tenzin.

But let me just add briefly, yeah, you’re exactly right. I mean, the rhetoric from Indian leaders—some of the leaders during the election has been quite alarming. And, you know, as the commissioner has noted, our annual report focused on 2023. So some of this stuff happened, you know, in 2024. But we did—you know, we did note—we have noted a rise in that kind of concerning political rhetoric in India and other places in recent years. And we also—in the report we did discuss concerns about the implications of this sort of rhetoric against especially religious minorities for religious freedom in the context of elections as sort of an issue in our section where we talk about thematic issues and key developments. And that is something definitely to watch during 2024, because there are a large number of countries holding elections in in this year. So it can be a very vulnerable time for religious minority groups in these situations, where government actors are trying to exploit those divisions.

FASKIANOS: Great.

We have a written question from Sana Tayyen, who is a professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands: Given the growth of secular laws in Europe, does banning hijabs and abayas in Europe in schools and public government buildings concern USCIRF? Women in France are denied the right to wear hijabs and cultural garments in schools. And also the top European Union Court has ruled that member states can prohibit their employees from wearing signs of religious belief. Does you serve highlight European violations?

CASSIDY: You want me to start on that one, Commissioners? Or, Eric, did you want to jump in?

UELAND: I was happy to jump in briefly. Thank you very much for the question. The short answer is, yes. Yes, we do focus on this in Europe, actually fairly significantly. And as Elizabeth says, all our material is available on our website. But we have spoken out directly and strongly against legislative efforts—legislated efforts to impose the sort of restrictions that you just have discussed. It’s not anything that we shy away from. In fact, as part of our broad focus around the globe, these sorts of laws can lead to very dangerous and, in fact, deadly consequences.

Again, Iran is a classic example, where religiously grounded legislative restrictions on the rights of women and girls ends up with, as we’ve seen, not just women in prison, but people executed—women executed. And while that is the reverse, somebody from France might insist about what’s really motivating the French Parliament to adopt a law like that, and regions and cities to go down that road, it is unfortunately a reflection of somewhat the same instinct—an effort to control and restrict to a proper way an expression of faith can result in not just an inappropriate boundary on freedom of religion or belief, but incredibly dangerous and deadly outcomes. So we’ll continue to stay focused on that.

There is a broader context as well. Both antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred have seen a significant rise in the past few years, accelerated by what happened on October 7 and the aftermath. This is something which should cause everybody on this Zoom conference today significant concern and issue a clarion call to your membership to speak strongly out against that. Because, again, it can lead to some terrible consequences and horrible outcomes.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Shaun Casey, with a raised hand. If you can unmute yourself, Shaun. There you go. And identify yourself.

Q: Thank you. Sorry about that.

FASKIANOS: No problem.

Q: Thank you, Irina. It’s great to see you. And thanks for hosting this great event. And, Stephen, congratulations on your new position and election. It’s great to see that.

I just have a quick question. I read your Russia section. And I was a little bit surprised that there’s no analysis of Russian Patriarch Kirill there. As you know, he has supported the war in really striking fashion, theological fashion even. He’s interfered in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. He has been a source of disinformation and propaganda on behalf of the Putin government. So I’m wondering why no sanctions recommendations against Patriarch Kirill, given what we know about his behavior, trying to tamp down or prevent religious freedom in the ongoing fight in Ukraine?

SCHNECK: Shaun, it’s good to hear your voice. We’re certainly aware of Kirill’s activity, and his affiliation with Putin’s regime, and his involvement in some of the repression of religion that we’re seeing occurring in occupied territories of Ukraine, for example. So I mean, this is something that we’re aware of. But he is not himself a government figure. And, of course, the—you know, the—you know, our focus is to focus primarily on acts of government and laws and policies of the Russian Federation, and not on church figures within that. But that said, it’s certainly, you know, something that is very much on our mind, and something that we are tracking closely. Maybe Elizabeth could speak more specifically about that.

CASSIDY: Sure. Yeah. Happy to. Thanks for the question. It’s a—it’s an important issue. And we have discussed his role in in some of our standalone reporting on Russia. Our annual report chapters are quite brief on each country and really mainly to support the recommendation for CPC or special watchlist status, which, as Steve said, is focused on actions of the government, not so much religious—

SCHNECK: Religious figures.

CASSIDY: Yeah.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to John Murray, who wrote his question but has also raised his hand. So, John, over to you. If you could identify yourself.

Q: Thank you, Irina. John Murray, director of International Admissions at Hesston College, and ordained minister in the Maronite church.

You’ve each spoken strongly in support of increasing commitment and action regarding religious freedom as a foreign policy issue, which I certainly support. But what are the barriers you’re experiencing in moving that direction? And what rationale is used to refrain from moving in the directions that you’re recommending? And how can those barriers be addressed? How can we be a part of addressing those barriers?

UELAND: Happy to kick off. And it is a great question. Thank you very much for asking it. Obviously, as an independent, nonpartisan, advisory commission, we unfortunately don’t have sole control of all the tools we’d recommend the executive branch to take action with, nor are we allowed to fully understand all the interlocking series of recommendations and considerations that any State Department takes as they review both our recommendations and their reporting and their internal recommendations that might come from the ambassador for International Religious Freedom.

I believe, however, speaking without my commissioner hat on, just as a private citizen, it is more than likely the case that there are significant other factors that any secretary of state is trying to take into consideration across a broad waterfront of policy priorities that any United States government leadership team has with a foreign country and a foreign government. And in so doing, there are moments where we believe, with our primary focus on standing unflinchingly for religious freedom, the executive branch fall short. That is something where, at least, again, as a private citizen thinking about some of those additional inputs and concerns that are on the table, thinking through better ways to make the case on religious freedom is certainly part of the mix. And we work hard on that with a lot of you and many others in the freedom of religion or belief community.

But also thinking a little bit about those other policy priorities, and seeing if there are ways to find partnerships so that we can both explain how improving freedom of religion or belief conditions in countries that are partners with the United States can lead to broader and more robust relations, as well as advance the causes and concerns that might be on the table for a secretary and a president, above and beyond religious freedom, might make sense. So, at least for me, having had the privilege of serving here for two years, the opportunity to talk to other economic actors, foreign policy principles. those who have leadership roles across a wide variety of organizations to provide additional input and impetus to our recommendations, is always an opportunity I’ve taken advantage of, and hope to have more opportunities to take advantage of it in the next couple of years.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

We have a written question from Perlei Toor, who’s the master of theological studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School: Do you see a link between the rise in Christian nationalism in the United States and rise in Christian nationalism, religious naturalism, and religious fundamentalism in other countries around the world? Do you believe tackling Christian nationalism in the United States is of international interest?

SCHNECK: I’ll try to answer that. You know, what we—what we see is—what we see in the United States in Christian nationalism is echoed with religious nationalist movements really all over the planet. And whatever is in the water in this given historical moment that we’re inhabiting, it seems to be something that’s conducive to, you know, the rise of nationalized religions. And, yes, I mean, USCIRF is concerned about religious nationalism, to the extent that religious nationalism and prioritizing one religion—usually the majority religion of a country—at the expense of minority religions, at the expense of other religious beliefs, does in fact pose significant danger to religious liberty. And, of course, it’s something that we’re looking at. I mean, we’ve already used the example of India to illustrate this. We could look at several other places as well. I’ll leave it at that. See if one of my other colleagues has something to say.

UELAND: Yeah, happy to chime in. And very much appreciate the question. And I guess, again, speaking as an American citizen who happens to have the privilege of serving at USCIRF, with my historian’s hat on I wouldn’t dare argue with somebody with a Harvard education. I just have a West Coast bachelor’s degree. But I would back up and point out, for the sake of discussion and consideration, that the role of religion allied with or separate from civil authority has been both a historical fact and a vexing question for thousands of years.

So while I appreciate your question, and remind you that we don’t focus on United States domestic policies or religious freedom questions—that’s not our mandate—this sort of how best, if at all, for regimes and religions to appropriately coexist, as Stephen laid out, where freedom or religion or belief is a significant value to civil authority and civil society and protected and promoted for those of religion or belief, is both a historical question and has had all sorts of answers in the past, but something that we support very strongly around the globe.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

There are a couple of questions. Is there a Hindu American member of USCIRF? That comes from Ram Tewari. I think we could answer that really quickly. Elizabeth, maybe—

SCHNECK: There is not—

CASSIDY: Not right now.

SCHNECK: Yeah, there’s not currently a Hindu member of USCIRF. There have been in the past.

And I should say that the—USCIRF is not at full capacity. We are three commissioners short at this point. So appointments are coming.

FASKIANOS: And the appointments—just to clarify the process—come from Congress?

SCHNECK: Congress and the president.

CASSIDY: Yeah.

FASKIANOS: And the president. So there’s—that is coming. It’s not from within the Commission; it is from Congress in the president.

CASSIDY: Right.

FASKIANOS: OK. Fantastic.

There are a couple of questions about Israel-Hamas, just in terms of what is the position on the Israel-Hamas—if you touch upon it in your report.

SCHNECK: Are you—I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure I understood the question. Is the question, do we address the Israel-Hamas situation in—

FASKIANOS: Yeah. So there’s one question about more than 100 sites of worship have been attacked and destroyed by state of Israel in Gaza. Could this behavior put Israel on consideration for the CPC list. And then there’s another question about the Hamas perusal of jihad against the Jewish state of Israel. So in light of those two questions, how did you address October 7 and what is happening now?

UELAND: So I think I’m happy to start, again. And very much appreciate the question. We just recently released a report on worldwide violations of the rules of war when it comes to the abuse, damage, or destruction of religious sites. We included examples from several conflicts globally, including what’s going on post-October 7. I will just point out that, based on the information we have, there have been a variety of attacks against religious sites that appear to come from both sides, that have resulted in damage to religious locations. And so we do follow this. We do track this. This is an aspect of evaluation of countries and activities by their governments. So it’s not something that passes without notice, but we have a variety of ways that we look at, evaluate, and ultimately make recommendations on countries for CPC or SWL, as well as entities for EBC. This is one of the many things that we evaluate for countries and movements around the world.

FASKIANOS: We have one minute left. So, Commissioner Schneck, I would also like to give you the opportunity to say—you know, maybe just go around and give any closing thoughts as well.

SCHNECK: Well, I wasn’t expecting a closing thoughts question. So allow me to kind of put on my old professors hat and just start to talk. No, seriously, one of the things that our—that this annual report makes clear is that we are seeing at this moment in time a surge of repression, persecution, and discrimination based on religion or belief around the world. And it’s—in some ways, it’s unprecedented. And I believe that USCIRF has to do everything that it can to ring the claxon warning about just how dangerous all of this is becoming. This isn’t a time when we can take religious liberty, freedom of belief, for granted. It’s under threat across the globe. And organizations, like USCIRF, that I’m proud to serve on, really, really need to stand up this particular time.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. We are out of time. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to all of your questions, all your written questions and oral questions. But we do appreciate the time and your contribution. And thanks to Elizabeth Cassidy for her longstanding work on USCIRF. And I think we will all agree that the commission is in really good hands with Chairman Stephen Schneck and Vice Chairman Eric Ueland. We look forward to seeing reports coming out under your leadership in the next, I guess, year and a half, or whatever it is, through 2025. So, again, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today to share the report. And I commend to all of you USCIRF’s website. They have a lot of reports, as was indicated on this call, that you can go and reference for specific issues and conflicts, and the like.

We will send out the video and transcript to this discussion afterwards. And in addition to the website, you can follow USCIRF on X at @USCIRF. And you can also CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program at @CFR_religion. And do write us at [email protected] with suggestions or feedback on what other topics we should be covering. So, again, thank you to Commissioner Schneck, Commissioner Ueland, and Ms. Cassidy for today’s discussion. We appreciate it.

CASSIDY: Thank you so much.

SCHNECK: Thank you, Irina. Honored to be here. Really appreciate your work.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

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