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Policy Briefs and Focuses

Religious freedom conditions in North Korea remain among the worst in the world, yet the U.S. government has tended to treat security-related concerns as in tension with—if not outright opposition to—concerns about human rights. This policy update presents a new approach, loosely modeled on the 1975 Helsinki Accords, that treats U.S. security and human rights objectives as complementary rather than contradictory. USCIRF recommends that U.S. negotiators accept a freeze on North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and missiles—rather than full denuclearization—in return for greater transparency and promises to respect human rights. Such a deal could prevent the security situation on the Korean Peninsula from further deteriorating, while at the same time laying the groundwork for gradual improvements in religious freedom in the country. The policy update highlights applicable lessons from the negotiation and implementation of the Helsinki Accords.

You can use this paragraph: This country update reviews religious freedom violations across several communities in Yemen and recommends more proactive U.S. policy to preserving these freedoms. Since capturing the Yemeni capital Sana’a in 2014, the Houthis have harassed and threatened Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and members of other faith communities.  Many members of these communities have fled Yemen out of a fear for their lives. Baha’is remaining in Yemen are at a particularly elevated risk. Houthi authorities announced in March that all six detained members of the Baha’i community, including USCIRF religious prisoner of conscience Hamid bin Haydara, would be released. However, these prisoners remain incarcerated and at a high risk of contracting COVID-19.

 

In its 2020 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the U.S. government enter into a binding agreement with Pakistan as authorized under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Such an agreement with defined benchmarks could provide Pakistan a path toward no longer being designated by the State Department as a “country of particular concern”. This policy update discusses the usefulness of an IRFA binding agreement and highlights substantive issues that an agreement should address in order to protect religious freedom, especially for the country’s religious minorities.

This report provides a country update on religious prisoners of conscience in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has detained dozens of individuals because of their religious affiliation or their advocacy on behalf of religious freedom. This report provides updates on several religious prisoners of conscience, including Nguyen Bac Truyen and Pastor A Dao. In addition, it discusses the ways in which prison conditions in Vietnam violate international standards, including the denial of access to religious services as a form of retaliation.

This report provides an overview of religious freedom conditions in Bangladesh in recent years. Despite constitutional protections for religious freedom, the country’s religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, have continued to face various challenges to their freedom of religion or belief. Among them are the introduction and enforcement of the Digital Security Act with provisions that criminalize blasphemy; ongoing problems with the legacy of the Vested Property Act; and challenges posed by the rise of religious extremism and local law enforcement.

This report provides a country update on religious freedom conditions in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. In 2016, the Lao government updated its regulation of religious freedom with the Decree on Management and Protection of Religious Activities, known as Decree 315. Despite the clarifications this decree provided, as well as efforts by the central authorities, religious freedom conditions in Laos remain of concern. All official faith communities must keep active communication with local and central religious authorities to function and operate, including in appointing leaders and in organizing faith-based activities. Unofficial faith communities struggle to obtain government recognition, and therefore legally cannot operate. This report examines the ongoing issues and barriers Laos faces to realize its international commitments to freedom of religious and belief.

This report is an examination of religious freedom conditions in Nicaragua following the outbreak of anti-government protests in April 2018 that continue to occur around the country. Throughout this political crisis, the Catholic Church offered support to protesters by providing sanctuary in churches and medical care, and in some cases vocal encouragement. Consequently, President Daniel Ortega’s government, security forces, and supporters started a campaign of intimidation and harassment against Catholic institutions, clergy, and churchgoers. This has severely disrupted the ability of Catholics to worship freely and even lead to members of the clergy fleeing Nicaragua out of concern for their safety.

This report examines the ways in which religious minorities in northern Iraq — especially the Nineveh Plains, Sinjar, and Mosul — continue to face serious barriers to their safe return to their homes in the short term and to their secure, ongoing presence in the long term. Although substantial humanitarian assistance from the United States and other international donors has aided reconstruction and stabilization efforts in those areas, tens of thousands of civilians from religious and ethnic minority communities remain internally displaced. More than any other single factor, it is the multi-faceted lack of security, mainly due to the corrosive presence of largely Iranian-backed militias, which continues to impede progress toward improved religious freedom conditions for Iraq’s religiously and ethnically diverse population.

This report highlights improvements and notes areas of concern regarding religious freedom in Bahrain in 2019. While Bahrain continues to allow freedom of worship to most religious groups, Shi’a Bahrainis face systematic and ongoing discrimination on the basis of their religious identity. In April, the government stripped citizenship from 138 Bahrainis following a mass trial, though it restored 551 citizenships following international pressure. It also summoned Shi’a religious leaders ahead of the Ashura holiday and questioned them over the content of their sermons. Throughout the summer and fall of 2019, Bahrain denied Shi’a prisoners access to religious texts and limited the time available to conduct Ashura rituals, though it granted more time following an intervention from the National Institute of Human Rights.

This report provides an assessment of religious freedom conditions in Uzbekistan, where USCIRF commissioners and staff traveled twice over the course of 2019. Although Uzbekistan has taken some important initial steps to allow for greater religious freedom, leading the U.S. Department of State to remove Uzbekistan from the list of designated Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and place it on its new Special Watch List, significant concerns remain. The report examines these ongoing issues, such as the continued imprisonment of religious prisoners, restrictions on Muslim communities, and a legal structure that severely impedes the religious activities of both majority and minority religious communities throughout the country. 

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