An independent, bipartisan advisory body has reiterated its call for the U.S. State Department to add Russia to its register of the world's "worst violators" of religious freedom, a blacklist that already includes Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and six other countries.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created by Congress to make recommendations about global religious freedom, proposes in its annual report released on April 21 that Russia, India, Syria, and Vietnam be put on the "countries of particular concern" list, a category reserved for those that carry out "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" violations of religious freedoms.
The blacklisting paves the way for sanctions if the countries included do not improve their records.
Countries recommended for the State Department's special watch list, meaning there are still "severe" violations of religious freedom there, include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.
The USCIRF report says that "religious freedom conditions in Russia deteriorated" last year, with the government targeting religious minorities deemed to be "nontraditional" with fines, detentions, and criminal charges.
A total of 188 criminal cases alone were brought against the banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, while there were 477 searches of members' homes, with raids and interrogations including "instances of torture that continue to go uninvestigated and unpunished."
For decades, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been viewed with suspicion in Russia, where the dominant Orthodox Church is championed by President Vladimir Putin.
In 2017, Russia outlawed the religious group and labeled it "extremist," a designation the State Department has called "wrongful."
Russia's anti-extremism law was also used to “persecute religious minorities, particularly Muslims," the report added.
In Russia's region of the North Caucasus, "security forces acted with impunity, arresting or kidnapping persons suspected of even tangential links to Islamist militancy as well as for secular political opposition," it said.
In occupied Crimea, the enforcement of Russia's "repressive" laws and policies on religion resulted in the prosecution of peaceful religious activity and bans on groups that were legal in the peninsula under Ukrainian law. At least 16 Crimean Muslims were sentenced to prison terms on "made-up charges of extremism and terrorism," the report said.
In Iran, the government escalated its "severe repression"” of religious minorities and continued to "export religious extremism and intolerance abroad," according to the report, which cites "scores" of Christians being "arrested, assaulted, and unjustly sentenced to years in prison."
The government also continued to arrest Baha’is and impose lengthy prison sentences on them, with between 50 and 100 followers of the Baha’i sect reported to be in prisons in Iran during the past year.
The USCIRF says religious freedom conditions also worsened in Pakistan, with the government "systematically" enforcing blasphemy laws and failing to protect religious minorities from "abuses by nonstate actors."
It cites a "sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech targeting religious minorities" including Ahmadis, Shi’a, Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs.
Abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape, and forced marriage "remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children," particularly among the Hindu and Christian faiths.
In Turkmenistan, religious freedom conditions "remained among the worst in the world and showed no signs of improvement," according to the report.
The government continued to "treat all independent religious activity with suspicion, maintaining a large surveillance apparatus that monitors believers at home and abroad."
"Restrictive state policies have 'virtually extinguished' the free practice of religion in the country, where the government appoints Muslim clerics, surveils and dictates religious practice, and punishes nonconformity through imprisonment, torture, and administrative harassment," the report said.