U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2020 REPORT


In 2019, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was gratified by important progress to improve religious freedom conditions in two countries where the governments engaged closely with USCIRF to bring positive change. The year saw remarkable changes in Sudan, a country USCIRF has recommended for “coun- try of particular concern” (CPC) designation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) every year since USCIRF’s first set of CPC recommendations in 2000. A brave, grassroots protest movement brought down the Islamist-led regime of former president Omar al-Bashir in April, followed by the establishment of a joint civil- ian-military transitional government four months later.

The transitional constitution no longer identifies Islam as the primary source of law, and it includes a provision ensuring the freedom of belief and worship. In November, the transitional government, which has engaged closely with USCIRF on religious freedom concerns, repealed the repressive public order laws that the former regime used to punish individuals, particularly women, who did not conform to its interpretation of Sunni Islam. While much work remains to extend full religious freedom1 to all Sudanese—including repealing apostasy and blasphemy laws— enough positive change has come to the country that, in this Annual Report, USCIRF is now recommending Sudan for the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List (SWL), a lesser category, rather than for CPC designation.

The positive tra-jectory in Sudan is depicted in the photographs on this year’s cover, which show the protests that led to the Bashir regime’s removal; transitional Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in a December meeting with USCIRF in Washington, DC; and a Sufi worship ceremony that USCIRF witnessed during its February 2020 visit to Sudan. Likewise, Uzbekistan took significant steps in 2019 to fulfill its commitments of the last few years to improve religious freedom conditions, also in close consultation with USCIRF. Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the government ended its longstanding practice of raiding religious communities for unregistered activity or unauthorized distribu- tion or possession of literature. In August, in a move recommended by the USCIRF, the government announced it would close the infamous Jasliq Prison where, in the past, two religious prisoners had been boiled alive. Although the government of Uzbekistan has yet to revise its problematic laws regulating religion, as it has pledged to do, or to address its contin- ued imprisonment of many peaceful Muslims, based on the encouraging changes over the past year USCIRF is recommending the country for the State Department’s SWL in this Annual Report, after having recom- mended it for CPC designation every year since 2005.

On the other hand, India took a sharp downward turn in 2019. The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. Most notably, it enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India. According to government officials’ statements, this law is meant to provide protection for listed non-Muslim religious communities—but not for Muslims—against exclusion from a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the resulting detention, deportation, and potential statelessness. The national and various state governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity, and engaged in and tol- erated hate speech and incitement to violence against them. Based on these developments, in this report USCIRF recommends CPC desig- nation for India.

Created by IRFA, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, sep- arate from the State Department, that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy rec- ommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. USCIRF bases these recommen- dations on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other interna- tional documents. USCIRF’s mandate and annual reports are different from, and complementary to, the mandate and annual reports of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

The 2020 Annual Report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during calendar year 2019 in 29 countries and makes independent recommendations for U.S. policy. The key findings, recommendations, and analysis in this report are based on a year’s research by USCIRF, including travel, hearings, meetings, and brief- ings, and are approved by a majority vote of Commissioners, with each Commissioner, under the statute, having the option to include a statement with his or her own individual views. In 2019 and early 2020, Commissioners and/or staff visited 11 countries in order to assess conditions: Egypt (January 2019), Bahrain (March 2019), Kazakhstan (May 2019), Burma (June 2019), Iraq (July 2019), Uzbekistan (May and September 2019), Vietnam (September 2019), Laos (February 2020), Malaysia (February 2020), Azerbaijan (February 2020), and Sudan (February 2020).

Changes to 2020 Annual Report

This report reflects changes in content and format from previous Annual Reports. The report’s main focus is on two groups of coun- tries: first, those that USCIRF recommends the State Department should designate as CPCs under IRFA, and second, those that USCIRF recommends the State Department should place on its SWL. The second group is different from past years, when USCIRF had its own “Tier 2”—a category USCIRF created long before Congress, in 2016 amendments to IRFA, required the State Department to have the SWL. The change to making SWL recommendations this year, and going forward, is intended to better conform with the statutory scheme and with USCIRF’s oversight and advisory role.

In addition, the country chapters this year are more concise to better emphasize the key findings justifying the CPC or SWL recommendation and to make more targeted recommendations for U.S. policy. Another change to the report this year is the addition of a section highlighting key trends and developments in religious freedom globally during the reporting period, with a particular focus on countries that do not meet the statutory criteria for a CPC or SWL recommendation.

As in previous years, the report still includes a section analyzing the U.S. government’s implementation of IRFA during the reporting year and providing recommendations to bolster overall U.S. efforts to advance freedom of religion or belief abroad. The report also contin- ues to include USCIRF’s recommendations of violent nonstate actors for designation by the State Department as “entities of particular concern,” or EPCs, under the 2016 amendments to IRFA.

See Also

Standards for CPC, SWL, and EPC Recommendations

IRFA defines CPCs as countries where the government engages in or tolerates “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. The statute, as amended by the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 (Frank Wolf Act), defines the State Department’s SWL for countries where the government engages in or tolerates “severe” violations of religious freedom.

Under IRFA, particularly severe violations of religious freedom means “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations . . . , including violations such as—(A) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treat- ment or punishment; (B) prolonged detention without charges; (C) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (D) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.” Although the statute does not specifically define “severe” violations of religious freedom, in making SWL recommendations USCIRF interprets it to mean violations that meet two of the elements of IRFA’s “systematic, ongoing, [and] egre- gious” standard (i.e., that the violations are systematic and egregious, systematic and ongoing, or egregious and ongoing). The Frank Wolf Act requires the U.S. government to identify nonstate actors engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom and designate them as EPCs. The law defines a nonstate actor as “a nonsovereign entity that exercises significant politi- cal power and territorial control; is outside the control of a sov- ereign government; and often employs violence in pursuit of its objectives.” The conditions supporting the CPC or SWL recommendation for each country are described in the relevant country chapter of this report. The conditions supporting for Boko Haram are described in the EPC recommendations the Nigeria chapter, for Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the Taliban in the Afghanistan chapter, and for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), in the Syria chapter. For al-Shabaab and the Houthis, the EPC recommendations are based on the following:

  • Throughout 2019, al-Shabaab continued to hold territory in Somalia and retained the ability to conduct attacks in Kenya. In Somalia, Christians pray in secret, partially out of fear al-Shabaab will attack them. In June 2019, al-Shabaab attempted to attack Christians at a hospital construction site in Madera, Kenya, but were thwarted by Muslim workers at the site who hid their Christian colleagues. In October, al-Shabaab unsuccessfully attacked a bus carrying eight Christian pas- sengers in Madera. In December, an al-Shabaab bus attack in Wajir County killed at least nine Kenyan Christians after they refused to recite the Islamic declaration of faith (shahada).
  • In 2019, the Houthi movement, formally known as Ansar Allah, continued to hold territory throughout Yemen. The group’s slo- gan, posted widely throughout Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, includes the phrase “a curse on the Jews,” and the tiny remaining Jewish community in Yemen faces discrimination by Houthi author- ities. Christians, especially converts from Islam, face severe religious persecution as well. The Houthis also continued their systematic persecution of Baha’is in Yemen, including their detention of community leader and USCIRF religious prisoner of conscience Hamid bin Haydara. Twenty-four other Yemeni Baha’is faced charges of apostasy and espionage. A Houthi appeals court upheld a death sentence against Bin Haydara in early 2020, but a Houthi spokesperson then announced in March that he and six other detained Baha’is would be pardoned and released.

Religious Freedom Violations in Other Countries and by Other Entities

The Annual Report’s emphasis on countries that, in USCIRF’s view, merit CPC or SWL designation is intended to focus the attention of U.S. policymakers on countries where the governments perpetrate or tolerate the worst violations of religious freedom globally. USCIRF monitors and has concerns about religious freedom conditions world- wide, including in countries not recommended for CPC or SWL status or not mentioned in the section of the report discussing other key trends and developments. The fact that a country is not covered in this report does not mean that religious freedom issues do not exist there, or that concerns discussed in previous annual reports have improved. It indicates only that USCIRF did not conclude that the conditions in the particular reporting year meet the statutory CPC or SWL standards. Similarly, the fact that a nonstate group is not recom- mended for EPC designation does not mean that it does not engage in religious freedom violations. Across the world, in countries discussed in this report and in other countries, there are numerous nonstate groups that commit particularly severe religious freedom violations but nevertheless do not meet the Frank Wolf Act’s standard for designation as EPCs because, for example, they do not exercise significant political power and territorial control.

USCIRF issues publications throughout the year on a variety of countries and topics, which are available at www.uscirf.gov. In addition, information on religious freedom conditions in all foreign countries can be found in the State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom reports.


For 2020, based on religious freedom condi- tions in 2019, USCIRF recommends that the State Department:

  • RedesignateasCPCsthefollowingnine countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan;
  • DesignateasadditionalCPCsthefollow- ingfivecountries:India,Nigeria,Russia, Syria, and Vietnam;
  • Maintain on the SWL the following four countries: Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan;
  • Includes the SWL the following 11 countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey;
  • Redesignate as EPCs the following five non-state actors: al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthis in Yemen, ISKP in Afghanistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan; and Designate as an additional EPC the following non-state actor: HTS in Syria.

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