One of the nation’s leading—and official—champions of religious
freedom implored the Obama administration to add Pakistan and Syria to the list
of nations that most egregiously violate religious rights.
Before a congressional subcommittee on May 22 Robert P. George,
chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said it
makes little sense that the roster compiled by the U.S. has barely changed in a
The congressionally chartered commission George heads recently
advocated that the State Department add eight nations to the eight already
designated as “countries of particular concern.” But among the recommended
additions, he singled out Pakistan and Syria for their deteriorating and
troublesome record on religious liberty.
“Pakistan represents the worst religious freedom environment for a
country not designated as a CPC,” said George, whose testimony highlighted
Pakistan’s harsh anti-blasphemy laws and chronic violence against the nation’s
Shiite Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Christians and Hindus.
George, a noted intellectual at Princeton University, spoke of the
“horrible and tragic” sectarian conflict in Syria that has killed tens of
thousands and displaced millions. Sunni versus Shiite violence is rampant.
Extremist religious groups, including al-Qaida affiliates, target Christians
and other religious minorities.
His remarks to a subcommittee of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee come as the State Department prepares to issue its
annual International Religious Freedom Report, considered the global gold
standard for measuring nations’ progress and failings on religious rights.
By law, the State Department must release that report by early
September. The CPC list, when it is updated, has traditionally been published
at the same time. George chided both Republican and Democratic administrations
for failing to update the list more regularly and often.
“Not every three years, not every five years . . . every
administration needs to make these designation on a regular and, we believe,
annual basis,” George said. He described the list as a powerful tool to
pressure countries to improve their human rights records and to give heart to
religious freedom activists and the oppressed.
A State Department spokeswoman said it’s unclear when the report and a
new CPC list will be released.
That same law that requires the CPC list also needs some tinkering,
George added. It’s no longer realistic to limit CPCs to nation-states. It
should be expanded, he said, to include non-state actors, such as Boko
Haram, the militant group that kidnapped scores of Nigerian schoolgirls last
month and is forcing them to live according to a harsh interpretation of Islam.
Such a change in the International Religious Freedom Act would be a
“minor, limited adjustment to bring the law in line with the world,”
Currently on the State Department’s list: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran,
North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. In addition to Pakistan and Syria,
George’s commission wants it to add Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Tajikistan and
Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J, who convened the hearing, also called on
the Obama administration to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international
religious freedom, a position that has sat vacant for seven months. Smith
said the vacancy “is a revelation, in my opinion, of priorities.”