Steven Howard, advocacy director at In Defense of Christians (IDC), speaks with Mark Melton about the 2021 annual report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In particular, they cover what the IDC thinks USCIRF got right and how they missed the mark. Howard also analyzes the religious freedom situation in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.

In Defense of Christians also hosted an event to discuss this report in more detail, which can be found here.

For the podcast episode with Nadine Maenza, commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, click here.

Rough Transcript

Mark Melton 

Welcome back to the Foreign Policy ProvCast. My name is Mark Melton, and I am the managing editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and today I’m going to be speaking with Steven Howard. Steven Howard has been writing for the journal for a little bit. He is the Advocacy 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 and other parts of the world like Nigeria. And so, first off, Steven, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Steven Howard 

Mark, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me. 

Mark Melton 

Steven, could you describe what In Defense of Christians or IDC does? 

Steven Howard 

Absolutely. We are the voice for Christian communities as well as other smaller faith groups, in the Middle East especially, who are persecuted for their faith. And as you pointed out too, we really looked at the Christian experience in the Middle East and have seen similar instances of persecution in other regions. So now we’re even looking at countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, India, and China.  

But our founding mission really, was to look at the genuine threat that Christianity has of becoming extinct in the very lands where it was born, and our mission is to preserve it in that region. 

Mark Melton 

And so today we’re going to be talking about a report or the annual report from US Commission on International Religious Freedom or USCIRF. And so, for listeners of the podcast, they probably already know about this a little bit, because we had Nadine Maenza on the podcast last year- she chairs the US Commission. And so, Steven for those listeners who aren’t already that familiar with the organization, could you describe what they do? 

Steven Howard 

Absolutely, and let me just give a quick shout out to Nadine Maenza because she is also a board member of In Defense of Christians. She is one of nine commissioners on the bipartisan and independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom. 

What’s interesting about this body is it is a government Commission, but as I stated, it’s independent and so this is a Commission created by and funded by the US Government, but it is also a watchdog group that is able to externally look at U.S. government policy and make recommendations for how it can be improved to support religious communities. And the Commission is especially empowered through its annual reports -which again, one was just released last week- to make recommendations to the Secretary of State that certain countries be classified as ‘countries of particular concern.’ And if the Secretary accepts those recommendations, he or she would then have the ability to apply executive actions, which include sanctions, on the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.  

In these reports we also see there are other categories, such as ‘entities of particular concern’ which we see applied to certain terrorist organizations. And there’s also a special watchlist that is applied to countries with high degrees of religious freedom violations, that the Commission is just putting kind of a warning flag on.  

So, they do great work. Their reports are essential to really calling the US to support religious freedom across the world. 

And again, as I mentioned, they were created by the government to serve as a watchdog group to the US government. And so, them performing that duty is vital. And so, as an advocacy organization, what we look at is we’re saying, ‘OK, well, you as a Commission are responsible for providing recommendations to the US government. Are your recommendations correct?’ Right? And so that is why we every year take a look at these reports and see what the Commission has got correctly as well as what hasn’t it got correctly? Where can it improve? 

Overall, we’re very grateful for its work, but we also believe that it’s important to hold even watchdog groups accountable. So, in some ways you can say IDC can serve as a watchdog on the watchdog. 

Mark Melton 

Yeah, so one of the things with USCIRF that’s interesting is that they can’t sanction these countries. But the State Department can take their recommendations and do that. 

But even if they don’t have that kind of teeth -from talking to Maenza and others- they are able to still highlight these issues, in that some governments have, in the past, tried to figure out how can they avoid being put on, you know, ‘country of particular concern’ or the special watchlist. What laws and how can they improve religious liberty to avoid that? Because I think it sounds like, in talking to some people in some of these places, where it’s not egregious violations of religious liberty it could just be government incompetence or government ignorance on how to do this, in particular countries. At least that’s been my feeling of talking to some different people, I’m not sure if that’s your same feeling. 

Steven Howard 

Certainly. You know, and it’s important to realize that the recommendations that USCIRF makes are really considered the first step in sanctioning a country for religious freedom violations. So, while ultimately the Secretary of State has the final say it’s vital that USCIRF perform its job correctly, basically setting up these countries for that determination. So, if the Commission, again, fails to designate an egregious violator or fails to recommend an egregious violator for CPC designation that means that possibly, again at the State Department level, that certain country may not receive the attention that it deserves. And conversely as well, we see issues where the Commission is making recommendations that countries receive CPC designation, and the State Department may agree but may waive the country from receiving sanctions. 

And so, it goes both ways. So again, the work that it does is very important, and this report is significant because again, its recommendations are the first step that basically the US can take in sanctioning countries for religious freedom violations. 

Mark Melton 

Looking at the USCIRF report, what do they get right this year? 

Steven Howard 

I am really continuously impressed with the Commission’s assessment of really egregious violators, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. In particular, USCIRF has been really the leading voice in the US government now for over 15 years in highlighting religious freedom violations in Saudi Arabia.  

In particular, Saudi Arabia has been recommended for ‘country of particular concern’ status, annually since 2004. However, since 2006, it’s received a sanctions waiver from every single Secretary of State from Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. And so, there’s been real no accountability towards the Kingdom and we all know what the trajectory is. We can look at things such as the war in Yemen, you know… again, the one-time imprisonment of women’s driving advocates, obviously the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. It’s just a consistent pattern reflecting that human rights in Saudi Arabia are on a downward trajectory. 

And so, our recommendation is, you know, if you really want to look at reforming human rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia…you know, if you want to look at where the rubber hits the road, we can look at religious freedom because the violations from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against religious freedom are unique, in that it is the only country in the world -I’m aware of- that actually does not contain a single church. It prohibits entirely, all non-Islamic places of worship. And so, its violations against the right to worship are uniquely egregious. 

The Commission also hits on strongly with regards to religious freedom violations in Iran, and it hits on discrimination against Baha’is and Christians, as well as issues such as the imprisonment of Christian converts. It talks really, as well about disturbing state sponsored anti-Semitism in Iran.  

I think that when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Iran, an area where the report can improve is assessing the foreign policy of these countries. It really looks heavily into the domestic religious freedom situation of both countries. But it does not pay a lot of attention to the foreign policy of these countries.  

With Saudi Arabia, the Commission’s traditionally, at least footnoted the issue of Saudi textbooks and it’s even mentioned reform, which is encouraging. But obviously the diffusion of Wahhabist theology has pretty serious consequences. You know, the Commission itself has noted that Saudi Arabian textbooks were at one point used in the ISIS caliphate for their textbooks.  

Uhm, I think for Iran in particular, it should really mention things such as Iran’s support for terrorist groups internationally, especially Hezbollah, seeing as it is really looking to destabilize Lebanon pretty drastically. And that would have disastrous consequences for religious diversity in the region. So, I think that looking at the foreign policy aspect of these countries and how it relates to religious freedom violations is really important. 

Mark Melton 

So, to kind of move to some of the specific countries here. So, there’s several that we could talk about, but one that is probably of interest right at this moment because of Joe Biden’s declaration or the recognition of the Armenian genocide, would be Turkey. And so, the IDC recommended Turkey be a country of particular concern or a CPC, but USCIRF recommends that it remains on the special watchlist. So first, why did the IDC want Turkey to be considered a country of particular concern and second, why did USCIRF not place it on this worst tier? 

Steven Howard 

That’s a great question. IDC really looks at Turkey as -especially under the Presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan- as posing an existential threat to Christianity in the region and that has been the case for decades now. To be clear, obviously the Republic of Turkey was founded after the genocide that was committed against the Christian communities of the former Ottoman empire and was really based on a foundation of denying that that genocide even took place. And we can look at instances such as the continued closure of the Halki Theological Seminary, their continued interference in the patriarchates of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church, as well as the forced closure of over 500 churches in Turkish occupied Cypress, as historic examples of state sponsored Christian persecution. 

And really, Turkey should have been CPCed years ago. Our determination was that over the course of the reporting period in 2020, there was an uptick, a unique increase of persecution, particularly targeting Christians that made Turkey deserving of a CPC designation. And we want to especially look at things such as the conversion of the Hagia Sophia -once Christianity’s largest cathedral- into a mosque, which is entirely unnecessary in a country that is 0.2% Christian and over 98% Muslim. We can look at the sentencing of Father Aho -a Syriac Orthodox monk- to two years in prison, merely for providing bread and water to strangers, who Turkey claims are PKK members despite the fact that there is no evidence. We can look to that the President of Turkey, referring to Christians as quote unquote ‘remnants of the sword.’ We can look to Turkey support for militias in Syria who are committing ethnic cleansing against Kurds, Yazidis, Christians, and others. We can look to Turkey’s supporting militias that have former ISIS members in their ranks and exporting those militias to Azerbaijan and their war with Armenia, which had significant religious overtures. We can even look at the speech that President Erdogan gave after converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, in which he claims that Turkey had the right to do such an action because of the conquest of Istanbul. 

So again, that happened in the 15th century, so the entire basis for such a move is fundamentally premodern and not acknowledging of the modern human rights regime. And our case was significant. We actually sent a letter to the Commission expressing our concern. I want to highlight that one of the signatories of that letter was Congressman Frank Wolf, who authored the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act which actually gives the Commission its mandate. So, the author of the Act himself looked at the actions of the government of Turkey and felt that it justified the CPC designation under the legislation that authorizes the Commission.  

It’s unfortunate the Commission did not agree with our recommendation. Their rationale is very suspect, though. In particular, the Commission makes several excellent recommendations about how the US can counter Turkey. However, you’ll notice that they’re not actually in the section under the country of Turkey. And this was pointed out by Richard Gazelle, but we can look at USCIRF’s report on Iraq, where we see that USCIRF highlights that Turkey’s airstrikes of the Kurdistan Workers Party in Sinjar have very minimal actions to protect civilians and have brought a lot of devastation to a Yazidi community suffering from ISIS. 

We also can see, in particular, in the Syria chapter of the report, USCIRF dedicates significant attention to the role of Turkey -particular areas under Turkish occupation- but just threats that Turkey poses to religious minorities in Syria and to the autonomous administration in the Northeast, which is a region where Commissioner Maenza spoke of on your podcast- a region that actually has religious freedom. 

So, it’s a bit strange that Turkey’s destructive actions in the region fall under the reporting of Iraq and Syria, but under the Turkey chapter they’re not mentioned at all. I I should say, we’re very happy that the Commission celebrated the Armenian genocide being recognized by President Biden. But these reports in many years, actually mentioned nothing of the fact that the government of Turkey sponsors a campaign… An international campaign of genocide denial. So, I think that there are some issues with regards to how the Commission understands it’s authorizing legislation. Or maybe there’s a need to improve the legislation. But with a country like Turkey, just not taking into account its foreign policy or attributing its foreign policy to the chapter and the designation of Turkey, were some real weaknesses in this report. 

Mark Melton 

So, to kind of move South a little bit from Turkey… Iraq and Syria, so what’s the… What does the report say about these two places and what does the IDC think about their conclusions? 

Steven Howard 

So, great questions. In Iraq we obviously see that before 2003 there were over 1.5 million Christians there. And today the Commission notes that the Iraqi Christian community is less than 200 thousand. 

They make some excellent… they actually analyze Iraq very well. USCIRF notes that in particular, many Iraqi Christians are displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an issue that we at IDC have highlighted before. But the Commission notes that less than 50% of Christians have been able to return to their native communities in the Nineveh Plains because of Iranian-backed mobilization forces. 

I’ve mentioned as well that the Commission correctly notes the destructive role of Turkey in Sinjar and how the actions of the Turkish Government are harming a Yazidi community still suffering from ISIS. 

USCIRF also notes the important role that over $389 million from USAID to ISIS genocide survivor communities, especially Christians and Yazidis… how crucial that aid is and how important it is for the Biden administration to build on that aid and really to institutionalize America’s genocide response. 

The USCIRF analysis on Syria is excellent. It mentions a number of destructive actors ranging from the Assad regime to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, designating this former Al Qaeda affiliate as an ‘entity of particular concern’ in Turkey itself. 

What I really appreciate about the Syria chapter is that designation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, as an ‘entity of particular concern’ because there’s been a bit of a blurring of understanding of this group by some voices in the United States. In particular, Mohammad al-Jolani, who is the leader of this group… again, a former Al Qaeda affiliate, and this gentleman is a US-designated terrorist, actually appeared on PBS News Hour earlier this month, and he actually pleaded for U.S. military support for his group because it is opposed to the Assad regime. And what was also concerning is that James Jeffrey, who previously served as U.S. Special Representative for Syria engagement agreed and stated that Jolani’s group was an asset to American strategy in Idlib.  

So, there’s a very odd contradiction here in that you have a religious freedom watchdog organization, government-sanctioned Commission raising the flag about this organization. At the same time, we see a former US Government official who many are frankly concerned about his own relations with Turkey, in particular. But on this issue, it’s clear as well that the case he’s making for the US to arm, you know, a former al Qaeda affiliate is incredibly concerning. 

And so, I appreciate the Commission’s designation, the recommendation for that entity of particular concern. And I’ll just add that they make a very compelling case for the US to really grant a degree of recognition to the autonomous administration of Northeast Syria, as Commissioner Maenza has noted. This is a region of the country that really is doing a historic job in promoting religious freedom, religious tolerance, gender equality, and these are values that are really aligned with our own values here in the US. So, I think that they did a very good job with that recommendation. 

Mark Melton 

And one thing that I would add is that you have written something for Providence that we will run in… sometime soon. And so, we will add links to that when it is ready ’cause I know you talk about some of the same topics. So, we’ll add links to that as well as to the report and to the event that the IDC put on last week. You’ll have a YouTube video of that event, so we’ll share all of that in the show notes. 

Steven Howard 

Absolutely. Yeah, I think that those are great resources that people can take a look at and use to learn more about actions the US can take to support Middle Eastern Christians. As well as, again, I think what’s really excellent about this USCIRF report is that it is a bipartisan Commission. And so, it does provide a very good road map for how Democrats and Republicans can work together to promote basic American values in a very common-sense way. 

Mark Melton 

And to cover one more country -there’s several countries we could talk about, and I do recommend the video I alluded to just a few moments ago because y’all cover many more of those- but one more that we can talk about on the podcast in our remaining time, is Egypt… to move a little South from Turkey and Iraq and Syria because Egypt is an interesting case because you have some positive moves. But I know that the IDC has pointed out some negative developments going on in Egypt. Would you like to talk about that and what the report has to say? 

Steven Howard 

Absolutely. USCIRF’s Egypt analysis is exceptionally helpful. It’s been strong for many years now. They acknowledge that the tone of President Sisi of tolerance is helpful, but they also highlight the very dramatic shortcomings and how that tone hasn’t always translated to policy and real change. Something that we have criticized at IDC before, specifically in an article for Providence, was the fact that following an event on Coptic Christians that we hosted that actually featured staff from USCIRF -Commissioner Maenza, Kurt Werthmuller- an event that featured Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute, as well as Congressman Brad Sherman and Congressman French Hill, raising the alarm about religious freedom violations in Egypt- we saw that the Egyptian embassy had actually hired a lobbying firm to basically produce a very misleading fact sheet stating that Egypt is a country where religious freedom exists today. And that is really the problem here, is that this is a country that is making some improvements but relies pretty extensively on a very misleading narrative- that everything is fine, that it’s reached some utopian state of tolerance. And the reality is just far from the truth. 

In particular, in December 2020, we actually saw that an Egyptian court acquitted three men who had actually stripped a 70-year-old woman Souad Thabet, completely naked, and dragged her through the streets of a town in Minya province in an act of public shaming, just based on rumors about her family. 

You know, just completely acquitted them.  

And Samuel Tadros has made this point excellently before, but mob attacks are very common in Egypt and punishments are very rare. Instead, what we often see with those who attack Christians is that these local security forces pressure Christians into forgiving their attackers in a quote unquote ‘reconciliation session,’ which is essentially just a sidestepping of a legitimate judicial incremental process. 

We also see, again, that Ramy Kamil, a Coptic Christian advocate, remains in prison and he’s never formally been charged. He’s been in pretrial detention for over a year, despite the fact that Senator Chris Coons and Senator Thom Tillis have written to the Egyptian embassy about his plight. Again, there’s been no response on this. 

We also see that. you know. Coptic Christians are living fundamentally as second-class citizens. They’re unable to obtain positions in the highest-level security offices in their country or even on the national soccer team. And unfortunately, you know, the problem of terrorism remains real. Just a week ago we saw Nabil Habashi killed by ISIS affiliates and so the country is not fundamentally secure. 

So, there’s a series of a very legitimate concerns here and we’re very grateful for the work that the Commission’s done in highlighting where Egypt has to look to make serious improvements. 

Mark Melton 

Was there anything else you wanted to cover? 

Steven Howard 

We’re just very grateful to live, you know. The fact that the US actually funds a government sanctioned Commission that is intended to put pressure on itself is very unique. I couldn’t tell you of another country in the world that actually funds a Commission that’s intended to hold the funder, that is the host country’s government, accountable for making improvements to promote religious freedom. It’s an exceptional idea, and we’re just very grateful as well to the Commissioners.  

This is a group of bipartisan officials appointed by the President, the Majority Leader, the Minority Leader, the Speaker of the House. And it’s just, it’s amazing to see people of different political persuasions working together on basic human rights issues like religious freedom. And I think that especially in today’s kind of very, you know, this age of hyper-partisanship that the recommendations of this Commission are… they’re common sense. And again, religious freedom helps everybody of every religion or of no religion. They’re things we all can agree on and they’re just basic priorities that are achievable. And so, the work that they do is important. And we’re just incredibly grateful for the Commission. 

Mark Melton 

Well, Steven, thank you so much for joining us on the Foreign Policy ProvCast today and we appreciate your work and look forward to your future writing. 

Steven Howard 

Absolutely Mark. Looking forward to staying engaged.