The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released its 2020 Annual Report. As Christian persecution intensifies across the globe, the report provides much needed data and findings from high-persecution regions, such as the Middle East. Importantly, it also recommends the worst violators of religious freedom at the governmental level to the Department of State for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) status, which can trigger a number of actions (including sanctions). USCIRF also recommends countries with religious freedom violations, but not quite at the CPC level, for Special Watch List (SWL) status. Middle Eastern Christians stand to benefit greatly from this report’s analysis and recommendations, and it is imperative that the White House and Congress prioritize the USCIRF report as they seek to advance the principle of international religious freedom.
USCIRF deserves commendation for recommending Algeria for SWL placement for the first time. The birthplace of St. Augustine witnessed an uptick in government persecution against the Protestant community in 2019. This past October, the government forcibly closed two of the largest Evangelical congregations in the country.
The U.S. should act on this recommendation by pressuring Algeria to respect the religious freedom of its citizens.
In Iran, a large number of Christian converts were either arrested or remained in prison during the reporting period. Iran is deserving of USCIRF’s CPC-recommendation because the limited degree of tolerance it extends to native Christians, Jews, and Zorastrians does not extend to Baha’is or Evangelical Christians. USCIRF also importantly identifies the need for the U.S. to resettle the 70 vetted-Iranian-Christians, seeking asylum in the U.S., who remain in Vienna and whose resettlement under the Lautenberg Amendment has long-been delayed.
The Trump Administration can support Iranian Christians by working to ensure that the Lautenberg Amendment is properly applied to Iranian religious minorities seeking exile in the U.S.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is rightfully recommended for CPC status once again. The fact that religions other than Islam are prohibited and private worship services are broken up for Christians continues to be the reality in the kingdom (Open Doors estimates there are over 1.4 million Christians in Saudi Arabia). However, the challenge here is that successive presidential administrations, since 2006, have been granting KSA sanctions waivers for its violations against religious freedom. There is also the kingdom’s failure to combat the spread of religious extremism and the diffusion of intolerant ideas in areas such as school textbooks. Saudi Arabia has also achieved some success with persuading religious liberty activists that Mohammad Bin Salman is a reformer, which is a deceptive narrative given the serious human rights violations in KSA today.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has the opportunity to sanction the kingdom for some of the worst religious liberty violations in the world. The diffusion of extremist theology from Saudi Arabia is also something Congress needs to combat. Saudi-textbook monitoring bills have been introduced in multiple sessions of Congress and now is the time to prioritize this issue. USCIRF Commissioners, who are a bipartisan set of political appointees, must do more to amplify the report’s findings on Saudi Arabia and speak with clarity about the need for reform.
Syria is also recommended for CPC status as the Christian community there continues to suffer greatly. Humanitarian aid for Christians on all sides of the conflict is something that remains a priority and USCIRF rightly calls for the implementation of a number of recently enacted legislation which can help the Syrian people. USCIRF also importantly urges that the $50 million in aid for Northeastern Syria designated by President Donald Trump last October is actually dispersed. It is also worth noting that the Middle Eastern diaspora community in the U.S. and Western Christians have struggled to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrian Christians living in regime-held territory.
While there are many unanswered questions about the future of Syria, removing obstacles preventing vulnerable Christians from receiving humanitarian aid can help ensure that Syria does not lose more of its Christian population to emigration. Facilitating such aid in a safe and secure way is a crucial way the Administration can support Syrian Christians.
Egypt was placed on USCIRF’s recommendations for SWL status because discrimination towards Coptic Christians continues. While President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has done a better job of promoting tolerance than his predecessor, fundamental shortcomings persist. Persecution against Christians in Minya Province persists and Coptic activist Ramy Kamel remains in prison on trumped-up charges as well. USCIRF notes that “there is approximately one mosque for every 820 Muslims and one church for every 2,430 Christians—roughly a 320 percent disparity.”
The U.S. needs to employ a carrot-stick approach with President Sisi, both praising him for his tolerance and criticizing him for his human rights violations. The bipartisan Egypt bill in the House, introduced by Rep. French Hill (R-AR) and with the co-sponsorship of many Democrats such as Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), does just this.
The plight of Iraq’s religious minorities is also covered in the report as Iraq is recommended for SWL status. The fundamental challenge here is that Christians and Yazidis from the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar remain unable to return to their native towns and villages after previously fleeing ISIS. Now it is the presence of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces that is preventing their return. The U.S. has done the right thing by directing over $315 million in humanitarian aid to these communities, at the direction of Vice President Mike Pence, but more needs to be done to ensure the aid actually reaches the intended recipients.
The Trump Administration should continue providing direct aid to Iraqi Christians (and other minority communities who are uniquely targeted for persecution), but with additional oversight to ensure it is delivered into the right hands. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) are working to educate their colleagues about how the presence of Iranian-backed militias is a continued obstacle to the return of minorities to their native communities. Congress should heed their recommendations and continue to remain engaged on this issue.
Turkey was also recommended for SWL status, which is an underwhelming designation considering the gravity of their religious liberty violations. The government once again directly interfered in the election of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The Halki Seminary has remained closed since 1971 and the Greek Orthodox community is consequently unable to use it for the training of seminarians. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also continued to politicize the status of the Hagia Sophia, the historic seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, by calling for its conversion to a mosque.
The USCIRF report fails to condemn Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide, although they did issue a statement in 2019 commending the Congressional recognition of it. While the report rightly addresses Turkey’s intervention in Syria, which has been catastrophic for Syria’s minorities, it does not acknowledge religious liberty violations in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.
President Trump successfully leveraged sanctions against Turkey to secure the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson. He should do the same for Christian communities indigenous to Turkey and those affected by aggressive Turkish foreign policy. No American president since Ronald Reagan has recognized the Armenian Genocide and it is time for the White House to do justice to this issue.
While it is important to constructively criticize USCIRF’s reports, it is a milestone accomplishment of the U.S. government to fund this commission and empower them to review and challenge existing U.S policy. The task that lies ahead for Congress and the White House is continuing the important bipartisan work of finally prioritizing human rights, and especially religious freedom, in U.S. foreign policy.
Steven Howard is the National Outreach Director for In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization advocating for the human rights of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.