Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday announced the US has deemed 10 countries guilty of severe religious freedom violations.
The nations -- China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar (also known as Burma), North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- were categorized "Countries of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. They were found to have engaged or tolerated "systematic, ongoing, (and) egregious violations of religious freedom."
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"In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrests, or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs. The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression," Pompeo said in a statement. "Protecting and promoting international religious freedom is a top foreign policy priority of the Trump Administration."
"These designations are aimed at improving the lives of individuals and the broader success of their societies. I recognize that several designated countries are working to improve their respect for religious freedom; I welcome such initiatives and look forward to continuing the dialogue," he added.
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, in a call with reporters on Tuesday, cited a catalog of religious freedom violations perpetrated by some of these nations. They included Pakistan's blasphemy laws, specifically the case of Asia Bibi, Myanmar's mass violence against the Rohingya population and China's imprisonment of the Uyghurs and its treatment of Christians and Buddhists.
"China isn't backing away from the religious persecution, it seems to be expanding," he said. "This is obviously very troubling to the administration."
According to the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, such "egregious violations" include "torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons."
Congress is notified of the designations annually, and sanctions to pressure the country to change its behavior may be imposed if all non-economic means have been used.
According to Brownback, such sanctions are "double-hatted" -- meaning the countries are sanctioned in other areas but also considered sanctioned as Countries of Particular Concern. China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Sudan are all being sanctioned as such, but Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have had their sanctions waived due to "national interest," Brownback said.
In addition to the Countries of Particular Concern designation, Pompeo "placed Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated 'severe violations of religious freedom,' " and designated al Nusra Front, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan and the Taliban as "Entities of Particular Concern," according to the statement.
Pompeo made the designations in late November.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal government commission established by the 1998 law, said the designation "demonstrates America's strong and active support for freedom of religion and belief worldwide."
"We are particularly gratified that, after years of documenting systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom in Pakistan, the State Department has finally added that country to the list of the world's worst violators for the first time," Chairman Tenzin Dorjee said in a statement to CNN. "We also welcome the new addition of Russia as a severe violator on the Special Watch List, but question whether Uzbekistan has sufficiently improved to be moved from the CPC list to the Special Watch List. In April 2018 USCIRF recommended that both of those countries should be designated as CPCs."
Brownback said Uzbekistan had made "substantial changes."
In December 2017, Pompeo designated China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as Countries of Particular Concern and placed Pakistan on the Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom.
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