United States Commission on International Religious Freedom releases 2016 report


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) lists Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran and North Korea as the five countries where religious freedom is most infringed in the recently published 2016 annual report.

USCIRF, a bipartisan, independent U.S. federal government commission, was first established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The purpose of USCIRF is to “monitor the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.”

Robert Smith, Managing Director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies, believes USCIRF plays an important role as the State Department’s watchdog. He thinks USCIRF’s annual report catalogs accurate reviews.

“It’s like a big report card for every country,” Smith said. “Their critique is quite valuable, and it keeps everyone honest.”

Stan Swim, President of the GFC Foundation and a leader of the Sutherland Institute, feels there is a direct correlation between a country’s religious freedom rights and a country’s economic stability.

“Conscience and its exercise is the first and most fundamental property right. Where this right is disregarded, experience has shown that all other property rights are on shaky ground,” Swim said. “So anyone concerned with economic growth and opportunity should look to treatment of religious freedom as a leading indicator for economic freedom.”

USCIRF documents religious freedom conditions abroad, assesses the U.S. government’s application of IRFA and designates certain countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC).

In its 2016 report, USCIRF identifies Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran and North Korea as CPCs where religious freedom violations are especially rampant and provides recommendations to help remedy the situation.

Nick Ut
A Muslim community holds a prayer vigil. Many individuals throughout the world are denied the right to worship how they choose.  (Associated Press)



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According to the report, the Burma government has harmed members of the Rakhine State, especially Rohingya Muslims who live there. The government “denies them citizenship, freedom of movement, access to health care and other basic services, and in 2015 revoked their voting rights and denied them and other Muslims the ability to contest elections,” according to a press release accompanying USCIRF’s report.

In order for Burma to demonstrate its commitment to international human rights standards, USCIRF counsels the Burmese government to terminate all discriminatory laws and policies that unfairly treat ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Rohingya Muslims.

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Since 1999, China has been labeled as a CPC. However, religious freedom in China has come under increasing attack since Xi Jinping’s took control in 2012. According to the report, “Central governments continued to forcibly remove crosses and bulldoze churches; implement a discriminatory and at times violent crackdown on Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, and harass, imprison or otherwise detain Falun Gong practitioners, human rights defenders and others.”

As China grows more powerful and assertive as a global power, USCIRF recommended that the U.S.—China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to continue to meet with Chinese leaders to discourage use of terrorism and threats on religious groups.

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Often regarded as “The North Korea of Africa,” Eritrea has carried out systematic, ongoing religious freedom violations for 20 years. The lack of basic human rights and economic opportunities has “led thousands of Eritreans to flee the country to neighboring states and beyond to seek asylum, including in Europe and the United States,” according to the report. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most targeted groups.

If development assistance is to be continued, USCIRF recommends the U.S. government create programs that directly contribute to Eritrea’s democracy, rule of law and fundamental human rights.

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Since President Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, the number of individuals imprisoned from religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christian converts and Sunni Muslims, has significantly increased.

USCIRF suggests the U.S. government utilize appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and protect Iranian activists by “supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies to counter censorship” and enable the free flow of information in and out of Iran.

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For decades, the North Korean government has indoctrinated its people to strictly honor the ruling Kim family. The forced loyalty removes any opportunity for individual thought or expression. The report states, “Those who follow a religion or other system of belief do so in secret.” Currently, tens of thousands of Christians are estimated to be living in prison camps.

USCIRF advises that the U.S. government coordinate with regional allies Japan and South Korea to raise human rights and religious freedom concerns and press for improvements.


According to USCIRF, religious freedom is decreasing in many countries all around the world. This includes the U.S. as well. Swim believes that as different belief groups learn to understand and become tolerant of each other, religious freedom will be maintained.

“Quite a few communities in our country have had to struggle for religious freedom … and we should continue learning from each other and working together,” Swim said. “Religious freedom is an essential part of the American success story.”

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