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A man prays outside the closed San Francisco church on Good Friday, where there are usually crowds of penitents attending the massive “Jesus del Gran Poder” procession, during a health emergency keeping residents home to avoid getting the new coronavirus during Holy Week in Quito, Ecuador, Friday, April 10, 2020.

Dolores Ochoa, Associated Press

In 2020, religious freedom faced a new foe: COVID-19

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released a new report outlining how faith groups fared in the past year

SHARE In 2020, religious freedom faced a new foe: COVID-19
SHARE In 2020, religious freedom faced a new foe: COVID-19

People of faith suffered in the past year as governments around the world used the COVID-19 pandemic to justify religious persecution, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which just released its 2021 annual report.

In some countries, unpopular faith groups were blamed for the spread of the virus or required to abide by especially harsh gathering restrictions, said Gayle Manchin, chairwoman of the commission, on a Wednesday press call. Elsewhere, worship services were treated differently under the law than similar secular events, which has been an issue that’s been debated multiple times before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Some used (the pandemic) as an excuse to punish and penalize minority religions,” Manchin said. “We will continue to monitor that as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.”

The commission is also closely monitoring the behavior of Chinese officials, who are spearheading efforts to limit religious practice not just within their own borders but in nations across the globe, said Gary Bauer, who serves with Manchin on the commission, during the call.

Most notably, China has shared its advanced surveillance technologies with other governments, making it easier for nations to track and interfere with religious activities.

In China, “we have a challenge to basic human rights and religious liberty that affects every nation in the world,” Bauer said.

By calling attention to these and other religious freedom violations, the commission hopes to enhance the U.S. government’s efforts to combat religious persecution in all forms.

If America drops the ball on defending the freedom of belief, millions of people will suffer, commissioners said.

“We urge the Biden administration to make sure that religious freedom is an important and critical and essential part of the way we think about our foreign policy priorities,” said Anurima Bhargava, vice chairwoman of the commission.

Countries to watch

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was established by Congress more than two decades ago to enhance the government’s efforts to track and respond to religious freedom violations around the world.

Each year, the independent, bipartisan commission leads fact-finding trips, hosts hearings and meets with religion experts in order to determine where U.S. officials should focus their nondomestic religious liberty work and identify what policy actions would be most effective.

In its new report, the commission names 14 nations, including China, North Korea, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Russia and India, as “countries of particular concern” due to ongoing, systematic and egregious mistreatment of one or more faith groups there.

In Eritrea, for example, dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses were thrown in jail and stripped of their citizenship after they refused, for religious reasons, to serve in the military. Iran forced a Christian couple to give up their adopted daughter because they left the Islamic faith. Burmese military leaders reportedly used Rohingya Muslim children as human shields during battles.

Although conditions in all countries of particular concern are deeply troubling, China should be thought of as the worst of the worst, since it is actively working to undermine religious freedom protections around the world, Bauer said.

China is not just “encouraging already repressive regimes, which would be bad enough. It’s also reaching into free nations around the world” and pressuring key leaders there, including from the business world, to be silent about or even endorse its violations of religious liberty and human rights, he said.

Nigeria also stands out among the 14 countries because of how rapidly its religious freedom situation has deteriorated in recent months, said Tony Perkins, vice chairman of the commission.

Nigerian troops once guarded vulnerable religious communities. Now, they imprison and even carry out death sentences against people who belong to unpopular faith groups, he said.

The commission’s report also identifies 12 countries in which religious persecution and discrimination falls just below the “ongoing, systematic and egregious” standard. It recommends that these nations, including Cuba, Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq, be added to the State Department’s “special watch list.”

One of the bright spots in this year’s report is that three countries — Bahrain, the Central African Republic and Sudan — have shown enough growth for the commission to recommend taking them off the special watch list, Perkins said.

Religious freedom remains threatened in these countries, but leaders are gradually abandoning some of their most problematic practices, he said.

Biden takes the reins

In addition to offering country-specific policy recommendations for each of the nations identified as either a country of particular concern or a candidate for the special watch list, the commission’s report highlights valuable steps taken by the U.S. government in the past year to promote the freedom of belief.

Commissioners applauded the Trump administration for releasing an executive order in June 2020 outlining how to better integrate religious liberty work into its foreign policy programs and for helping launch the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which is aimed at reducing religious persecution.

They also thanked a handful of Trump administration officials, including Sam Brownback, who served as the U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, for their service and called on President Joe Biden to quickly fill their vacated posts.

“The bar has been set pretty high by the Trump administration,” Perkins said.

Although some religious freedom advocates have expressed concern that the Biden administration will abandon some of the faith-related programs it inherited, the commission remains optimistic that Biden will keep the momentum going, he added.

In the coming months, commissioners expect the president to nominate leaders to key State Department roles, raise the historically low refugee ceiling put in place by the Trump administration and implement some of their other policies recommendations.

Regardless of what Biden chooses to do, next year’s report will offer a clearer picture of how his leadership is impacting religious freedom around the world, Perkins said.

“This time next year, we’ll have a much better ability to assess,” he said.