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USA News

US body warns international Christian persecution is on the rise

by Heather Preston

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has released its 2023 report documenting the state of religious freedom across the world.

The report identifies countries that are violating religious freedom and provides recommendations to the U.S government to protect freedom of religion or belief.

17 countries have been flagged for designation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) due to “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Myanmar- which is Buddhist majority – was among those listed as a “country of particular concern,.” The report, released on Monday highlighted a significant decline in religious freedom, particularly among minority Christians following the country's military coup in February 2021.

It states: "In 2022, religious freedom in Burma [Myanmar] continued to decline significantly. Under the territory that the military controls, it has significantly cracked down on all dissent and freedom.

“The government violently targeted houses of worship belonging to religious minorities throughout the year and its forces have also burned villages of religious minorities and destroyed homes and houses of worship and schools in the process."

Since the 2021 coup government forces have damaged or destroyed at least nine Catholic churches in Kloikaw Diocese in Kayah State and severely affected at least 16 out of 38 Catholic parishes.

It cities Major General Zaw Min Tun's 2022 address in which he promised that any verbal, written, or online post insulting Buddhism will be punished according to law as a contributing factor - an action that has been argued galvanizes religious extremists and nationalists into taking action against civilians.

Churches, convents and other institutions in the Christian strongholds of Kachin, Kayah, Karen and Chin states have suffered airstrikes and shelling and many priests and pastors have been targeted by the junta according to reports from UCA news. As a result of the persecution, thousands of Christians have sought shelter in churches and the jungle.

The USCIRF has urged the Biden administration to engage with the National Unity Government, a pro-democracy government-in-exile formed by elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted in the 2021 coup, in a bid to prioritise religious freedom.

New to the USCIRF CPC recommendations this year are Cuba and Nicaragua—which USCIRF had previously been recommended for the lower Special Watch List (SWL) in 2022.

The report claims that the government in Cuba seeks "total dominance over religious life in the country…[and] the regime in Nicaragua has sharply increased its persecution of the Catholic Church by imprisoning clergy, shuttering church-affiliated organizations, and prohibiting Catholic rituals.”

Other countries on the list CRC include: China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Vietnam and India. All apart from Russia are also ranked on the OpenDoor's World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians experience the most extreme persecution.

India has also seen religious freedom conditions worsen in 2022 following the governments promotion and enforcement of anti-conversion laws which have impacted Christians and other minority faiths.

"The national government also continued to suppress critical voices—particularly religious minorities … including through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property, and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and by targeting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA)", the report states.

India's newly enforced sedition law that criminalises any attempt to "excite disaffection" towards the government has also been highlighted in the report as a threat to freedom of religion and expression. It has reported violent attacks against Christians and minority faiths and the destruction of places of worship in predominantly Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods.

"Hindu nationalists bulldozed a Catholic centre near Mangalore in February and attacked, looted, and destroyed the homes of hundreds of Christians in December for their refusal to convert to Hinduism," the report continues "social media platforms continued to facilitate widespread disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence toward religious minorities."

The United States Commission has called for the advancement of human rights for all religious communities in India and the promotion of religious freedom, dignity, and interfaith dialogue. It has condemned ongoing religious freedom violations and recommended support for religious organisations and human rights groups and sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom.

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