For many people of faith or even no faith, the cause of freedom of religion or belief is instrumental. The Middle East—home to the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—continues to remain the world’s top hotspot for religious persecution, even after the historic signing of the Abraham Accords.
The reality is that in the land of Abraham, religious freedom is a life-or-death issue.
Fortunately, the US government has built institutions and tools to combat religious persecution. One such asset is the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan and independent government commission that recommends certain countries receive designations from the secretary of State as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). If accepted, the secretary then imposes certain executive actions, including sanctions, on such countries. A lesser designation, but one worth noting, is USCIRF’s Special Watch List (SWL) category.
In this time of political transition and hyper-partisanship, USCIRF’s 2021 report offers a strong roadmap for an area of foreign policy where Democrats and Republicans can continue to work together to promote the common good. For Middle Eastern Christian communities, in particular, the report makes several strong recommendations.
The birthplace of Saint Augustine made its debut on USCIRF’s report for the first time in 2020 as an SWL country. The government’s persecution of the Protestant Christian Algerian community is the biggest factor in the Commission’s determination.
Azerbaijan managed to evade CPC status and somehow snuck onto the Commission’s watch list. This is concerning given that there remains a disturbing anti-Armenian and anti-Christian hostility from the Azerbaijani government toward Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).
The Commission notes that Azerbaijani forces used precision-guided missiles to target the Armenian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Shusha.
Egypt rightfully finds itself as an SWL country once more this year, and persecution there is highly concerning considering it is home to the largest Christian population in the Middle East.
The recent execution of Coptic Christian Nabil Habashy by ISIS affiliates is the latest anti-Christian act of terrorism in a dark chapter of such attacks in recent years.
Unfortunately, Coptic Christians continue to live as second-class citizens in their ancestral homeland.
Egypt has failed to justify the continued imprisonment of Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian advocate, despite the fact that two senators wrote to the country’s ambassador in Washington, DC.
USCIRF highlights that, in December 2020, an Egyptian court acquitted three men for stripping Suad Thabet, then a 70-year-old Coptic woman, naked and parading her through the streets of a town in Minya Province in an act of public shaming. Reconciliation sessions must never serve as substitutes for justice and those who attack Christians should receive criminal punishments.
The Egyptian embassy in Washington sought to dispel notions of religious persecution through a misleading factsheet that prematurely attests the country has already achieved religious freedom.
USCIRF rightfully recommends Saudi Arabia for CPC status, as the country completely prohibits all non-Islamic places of worship. USCIRF has been raising the alarm on the Kingdom’s religious freedom violations since 2004. Every secretary of State since then has accepted the Commission’s recommendation; however, they have also issued an indefinite sanctions waiver to protect the Kingdom from any real executive accountability.
The president should direct Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to enact actions prescribed by law, including sanctions, that are supposed to accompany the CPC designation.
Not surprisingly, USCIRF designates Iran as a CPC in its report. The state-sanctioned persecution here against religious minorities, including Muslim minorities, is one of the most alarming in the world. The state-sponsored anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are especially concerning for a nation once home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East.
The report does not mention much about Iran’s support for terrorism internationally, but advocates for religious freedom should be incredibly concerned. Hezbollah, in particular, seems intent on destroying Lebanon, the most religiously diverse country in the region.
Iraq’s Christian community, which stood at over 1.5 million before 2003, is decreasing and currently numbers less than 200,000.
Many Christians are living as internally displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan. USCIRF notes that fewer than 50 percent of Christians have returned home to their native communities on the Nineveh Plains because of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s airstrikes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Sinjar, with minimal effort to protect civilians, bring devastation to a Yazidi community that has already suffered so much.
USCIRF positively highlights the over $389 million given from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to communities, such as Christians and Yazidis, recovering from the ISIS genocide. It is crucial that the Biden administration builds on these efforts and institutionalizes America’s genocide response.
The Commission raises the alarm on a multitude of actors and factions in Syria, including the Assad regime, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS, which the Commission recommends designation as an entity of particular concern), and Turkey.
It is therefore concerning that Mohammad Al-Jolani—the leader of HTS, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, and a US-designated terrorist—appeared on PBS NewsHour earlier this month. He argued that the US military should support HTS because they both share an adversary in the Assad regime. What is even more concerning is that James Jeffrey, who previously served as special representative for Syria engagement, argued that Jolani’s group was an “asset” to American strategy in Idlib. There is a glaring contradiction between how some voices in the national security community and others in the human rights community view this group.
The Commission is very supportive of the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria as a governing authority promoting religious tolerance and understanding. The Commission is rightfully critical of areas of northern Syria under Turkish occupation and the threats that Turkey poses to religious minorities and to the Autonomous Administration.
USCIRF’s Turkey recommendation for SWL status is underwhelming, considering that Turkish’s malign activities in Syria were significant factors in the Commission’s Syria CPC designation (as Richard Ghazal pointed out).
Most recently, Turkey has sentenced Fatho Aho, a Syriac Orthodox monk, to two years in prison for providing bread and water to strangers whom Turkey maintains are PKK members, despite displaying zero evidence to support such claims.
In July 2020, Turkey converted the Hagia Sophia, once Christianity’s largest cathedral, into a mosque, a move entirely unnecessary in a country whose post-genocide Christian population sits at less than 0.2 percent of Turkey’s population.
The Commission celebrated the US government’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but its Turkey reports have not criticized the Turkish government for sponsoring an international campaign of genocide denial.
A Valuable Report
While these reports are never perfect, their existence reflects how the US government is uniquely positioned to serve as a global leader in the promotion of human rights. USCIRF’s commissioners and staff deserve commendation for producing them.
For Christians concerned about the persecution of their co-religionists in the Middle East and motivated to promote human dignity, the Commission’s analysis and recommendations provide an excellent roadmap for policies that can pursue these ends. For the Biden administration and Congress, this report provides many achievable policy recommendations that have wide bipartisan support.