By Lauren Markoe, Religion News Service, with BJC Staff Reports

The State Department should add Russia to its list of the worst violators of religious freedom, a U.S. commission declared in its annual report.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), founded to advise the federal government on the issue, comes out with its own list of shame each year, citing the most abusive countries in a lineup consistently longer than the State Department’s.This year, the USCIRF report included a dissenting report from its vice chair criticizing the commission for failing to investigate Israel.

On April 26, USCIRF recommended – for the first time – that the U.S. should designate Russia as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for wielding an anti-extremist law to violate the religious freedom of Muslims and other minorities. Most recently, Russia banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in April, labeling them “extremist” and ordering the state to seize their properties and close their Russian headquarters and local chapters.

“The Russian government views independent religious activity as a major threat to social and political stability,” according to the USCIRF report. “It maintains and frequently updates laws that restrict religious freedom, including a 1997 religion law and a much-amended 2002 law on combating extremism.”

The anti-extremism law “lacks a clear definition of extremism,” and the Ministry of Justice maintains the Federal List of Extremist Materials, which has more than 4,000 items on it “including many with no apparent connections to militancy,” according to the report.

USCIRF notes that the Russian government claims to have discovered “extremist literature” at official Jehovah’s Witnesses religious sites, “including in September 2016, when a surveillance video recorded police planting evidence.”

“They’re treating these people like they’re terrorists,” said Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest who chairs USCIRF, referring to Russia’s treatment of the Witnesses. “They’re pacifists, they don’t want to be involved in politics and they just want to be left alone. The [Russian] Supreme Court has basically said they’re illegal.”

The USCIRF says that Russia is treating the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church like a state church. The government is favoring it in areas of state sponsorship, which fosters a climate of hostility toward other religions. Globally, “the commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,” Reese said.

USCIRF’s list this year differs from its 2016 list with the addition of Russia, but also the dropping of Egypt and Iraq, a move that may surprise some given continuing deadly attacks on Christians in those countries. But Reese said that while violence against Christians in those nations remains a horrific problem, the commission wanted to highlight the concrete steps that both the Egyptian and Iraqi governments have taken to protect religious minorities.

For example, according to the report section on Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “consistently has made noteworthy public statements and gestures encouraging religious tolerance and moderation, has condemned sectarian attacks and assisted victims, and has urged reform of textbooks and religious discourse in society, an important shift in tone and rhetoric from his predecessors.”

Still, Egypt and Iraq are on USCIRF’s list of “Tier 2” countries, which are considered violators of religious freedom, but not as problematic as the CPCs.
On the same day of the report’s release, one commissioner, Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, held a news conference to discuss his dissent to the report, in which he criticizes the commission’s refusal to investigate Israel.

Zogby, flanked by sympathetic Christians in a Lutheran church on Capitol Hill, said Israel discriminates against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews but gets a free pass from the commission.

“I did not look for this issue, it came to us,” said Zogby, who cited a lengthy study from young lawyers in the West Bank — occupied by Israel — that concluded that Israel fails to meet international standards on religious freedom on which other nations are judged.

Other commissioners, Zogby said, were “bullied” to oppose an investigation. Those petitioning for an investigation were often dismissed as anti-Semites and some commissioners feared the commission would lose congressional support for investigating Israel, he said.

Joining Zogby was the Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America; and the Rev. Drew Christiansen of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

Reese said many groups and people, including Zogby, propose that USCIRF launch investigations, but without a majority vote of the commission, those investigations don’t go forward.

“Jim proposed it but he didn’t get a majority,” said Reese, who added that USCIRF reports often include dissents.

The USCIRF is not formally part of any branch of the federal government. Created by Congress in 1998, the agency has nine commissioners (appointed by the president and the Congressional leadership of both parties) and more than a dozen full-time staff members. Each commissioner is appointed for a two-year term but can be re-appointed.

From the May/June 2017 edition of Report from the CapitalYou can also read the digital version of the magazine or view it as a PDF.