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Policy Briefs and Focuses

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. 

Saudi Arabia has taken some limited steps toward greater religious freedom in 2019 while continuing to restrict it in other ways. On a positive note, Saudi Arabia eased religious restrictions on women’s mobility in 2019 and allowed Saudi women for the first time to report births, marriages, and divorces. It also began issuing tourist visas and relaxed religious restrictions on dress for women visitors to the Kingdom. Yet at the same time, the government has conducted mass executions of Shi’a Muslims. It continued to detain several religious prisoners of conscience and severely mistreat activists who peacefully protested religious guardianship laws, and in official communications it described feminism as a form of radical extremism.