In 1998, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton, the U.S. Congress passed the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which declared it to be U.S. policy to (1) condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion; and (2) seek to channel U.S. security and development assistance to governments that are found not to be engaged in gross violations of the right to freedom of religion. It directed the Secretary of State to prepare portions of its annual Human Rights Report relating specifically to freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination.
The act founded the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as an independent, bipartisan government commission to monitor religious freedom abroad.
The 2022 Annual Report of the commission is available here. It covers events of 2021. The 2023 Annual Report is not yet released.
Excerpts from the report:
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Afghanistan worsened as the Taliban took control of the country on August 15. Despite initial statements from the Taliban that they had reformed some elements of their ideology, Afghans who do not adhere to the Taliban’s harsh and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam and adherents of other faiths or beliefs are at risk of grave danger. Reports indicate that the Taliban continue to persecute religious minorities and punish residents in areas under their control in accordance with their extreme interpretation of Islamic law. USCIRF has received credible reports that religious minorities, including nonbelievers and Muslims with differing beliefs from the Taliban, were harassed and their houses of worship desecrated. By year’s end, the one known Jew and most Hindus and Sikhs had fled the country. Christian converts, Baha’is, and Ahmadiyya Muslims practiced their faith in hiding due to fear of reprisal and threats from the Taliban and separately from the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). In September 2021, despite promises to form an “inclusive” government, the Taliban announced an all-male and religiously and ethnically homogenous government cabinet. The Taliban also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which uses a notoriously violent hardline Islamist policing system. Since September 2021, the ministry has banned practices it deems un-Islamic, including wearing Western-style haircuts and listening to music. The ministry also imposed a new dress code as well as work, education, and travel restrictions on women.
On February 1, the Burmese military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized the institutions of the state, arrested members of the civilian government, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and placed Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in effective control of the country. The coup ended a decade of quasi-democracy and triggered an escalation of violence. Conditions for ethnoreligious minorities, such as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya and Christian Chin, deteriorated alongside the breakdown of order and violations of civil and political rights. The Tatmadaw targeted houses of worship, faith leaders, and religious communities in its crackdown on opposition. The Tatmadaw arrested religious leaders, including those from the Buddhist majority, for opposing the military junta. Faith communities, including ethnoreligious Christian minorities, now face persecution that some have likened to what the Rohingya have faced since 2017.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in China deteriorated. The government continued to vigorously implement its “sinicization of religion” policy and demand that religious groups and adherents support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology. Although China recognizes Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, adherents of groups with perceived foreign influence—such as underground Catholics, house church Protestants, Uyghurs and other Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists—and those from other religious movements, such as Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God, are especially vulnerable to persecution.
During the year, Xinjiang authorities continued to detain Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims arbitrarily in concentration camps, prisons, and forced labor camps for a variety of religiously related reasons. Former detainees and witnesses reported physical and psychological torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced labor, and forced sterilization and abortion while in custody. Moreover, authorities separated as many as 880,000 Muslim children from their parents and destroyed or desecrated important religious and cultural sites throughout Xinjiang. In 2021, the U.S. government and the parliaments of Canada and several European countries, research organizations, and the United Kingdom (UK)based Uyghur Tribunal determined the atrocities in Xinjiang to be genocide and/or crimes against humanity. Furthermore, evidence suggests that Chinese authorities began to implement similar repressive policies against Hui Muslims—a group the government previously tolerated—throughout China.
The Chinese government continued its pervasive control and suppression of Tibetan Buddhism. Local authorities organized seminars to indoctrinate monks and nuns at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, restricted Tibetans’ access to temples with heavy security presence, destroyed sites and symbols of religious significance, and detained and punished Tibetans for listening to the Dalai Lama’s teachings or possessing his portrait.
Despite the Vatican-China agreement on bishop appointments, authorities continued to harass and detain underground Catholic priests who refuse to join the state-controlled Catholic association. Authorities throughout China routinely raided churches, detained Christians, and confiscated religious materials. The government also continued to demolish church buildings and crosses—including the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Xinjiang—under its “sinicization of religion” campaign.
The government continued its persecution of other religious movements, often using the “anti-cult” provisions under Article 300 of China’s Criminal Law. Falun Gong source Minghui reported that in 2021, authorities harassed and arrested thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and sentenced 892 to prison terms. At least 101 practitioners died as a result of government persecution. The government escalated its persecution of the Church of Almighty God, reportedly arresting thousands of its members throughout China and torturing many for practicing their faith. Some reportedly died in custody.
Eritrean authorities continue to recognize only four religious groups as official: Sunni Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The government deems unregistered religious groups to be illegal and punishes them for practicing their faiths publicly. The government regularly invokes Proclamation No. 73, a proclamation passed in 1995 to “legally standardize and articulate religious institutions and activities,” to prosecute members of unregistered religious groups and intervene in the internal affairs of registered groups. President Isaias Afwerki and his government use this and other restrictive laws to torture, imprison, and even kill individuals who oppose the government.
As of December 2021, there were 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses in jail, some of whom have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. At least a thousand individuals are believed to be imprisoned due to their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities. The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.
In 2021, the Indian government repressed critical voices— especially religious minorities and those reporting on and advocating for them—through harassment, investigation, detention, and prosecution under laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Sedition Law.
The government arrested, filed complaints against, and launched criminal investigations into journalists and human rights advocates documenting religious persecution and violence, including Khurram Parvez, a prominent Muslim human rights advocate who has reported on abuses in Jammu and Kashmir. The government also broadly targeted individuals documenting or sharing information about violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities; as one example, UAPA complaints were filed against individuals for tweeting about attacks on mosques in Tripura.
The government erected hurdles against the licensure and receipt of international funding by religious and charitable nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), significantly impacting religious communities. Numerous groups that document religious freedom violations or aid marginalized religious communities have been forced to shut down operations in the country given the restrictions under FCRA that regulate access to and reporting on foreign funds and prohibit their receipt for any activities purportedly “detrimental to the national interest.” At the close of 2021, the licenses of nearly 6,000 organizations, including religious and humanitarian organizations such as Missionaries of Charity and Oxfam India, were not renewed under the FCRA (after an outcry, Missionaries of Charity’s license was renewed in January 2022).
Government action, including the continued enforcement of anti-conversion laws against non-Hindus, has created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups, including against Muslims and Christians accused of conversion activities.
National, state, and local governments demonized and attacked the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam. In October 2021, Karnataka’s government ordered a survey of churches and priests in the state and authorized police to conduct a door-to-door inspection to find Hindus who have converted to Christianity. In June 2021, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, warned that he would invoke the National Security Act, which allows for the detention of anyone acting in any manner that threatens the security of state, and that he would also deploy a team of over 500 officials to counter those (including, by his account, children) who were carrying out conversion activities.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Iran remained poor. In February, then President Hassan Rouhani signed amendments to articles 499 and 500 of Iran’s penal code imposing prison time on those guilty of “insulting Islam” and conducting “deviant activity” that “contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.” In June, three Christians were arrested, charged, and sentenced to five years in prison each on the basis of these amendments. Iran also continued using charges of “corruption on Earth,” “enmity against God,” and national security-related charges to persecute religious minorities. In April, the Arak Criminal Court sentenced two men to death for “insulting the Prophet,” and upheld the sentence on appeal in August. Iran’s government also continued to arrest, charge, sentence, and jail scores of Christians on charges including “propaganda against the regime.” Christian converts from Islam faced particular targeting for persecution.
Iran also continued to spread antisemitism. The Iranian government also targets and fails to protect members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, and intersex (LGBTI) community. Iran actively executes people who engage in same-sex relations, citing religious grounds.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Nigeria remained poor as both state and nonstate actors continued to commit widespread and egregious religious freedom violations. Despite Nigeria’s constitution protecting religious freedom, Nigerian citizens faced blasphemy charges and convictions, violence, and attacks during religious ceremonies.
State authorities in the north of the country, particularly in Kano State, charged and convicted several individuals for blasphemy in 2021. In June 2021, the Department of State Security (DSS) arrested Ahmad Abdul for allegedly insulting Allah in a song he released that was not vetted by the Kano Censorship Board. The chair of the board had recently announced a new policy that required poets and singers to submit their material to the board for approval. In July, authorities arrested Sheikh Abduljabara Kabara and charged him with blasphemy and incitement, claiming his sermons were “mortifying [to] the companions and the Holy Prophet Muhammad.” The arrest followed a debate organized by the government in which Kabara argued precepts of Islam with state-backed clerics. Also in July, authorities charged prominent humanist leader Mubarak Bala with causing a public disturbance by posting blasphemous content on social media. Authorities had detained Bala without charge for 15 months prior to announcing the official charges. Moreover, a mob in Kano State killed a reverend in retaliation for his alleged involvement in converting a local member of a Muslim family to Christianity.
Activity by criminal and armed groups throughout the year accounted for six attacks on houses of worship, including at least five attacks against mosques in Katsina, Niger, and Zamfara states and six attacks against churches in Kaduna State. In November, churches in Zamfara State received threatening messages from local armed groups demanding that they close or risk ferocious attacks. At least 13 religious leaders were kidnapped for ransom over the course of the year, including eight priests, two pastors, and two imams.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in North Korea remained among the worst in the world. North Korea’s ruling ideology, known as Juche, forbids competing ideologies—including religious ones—and treats religion as an existential threat.
North Korea’s songbun system classifies citizens based on their perceived loyalty to the state. Religious practitioners belong to the “hostile” class and are considered enemies of the state, deserving “discrimination, punishment, isolation, and even execution.” The government attempts to provide an illusion of religious freedom to the outside world through state-backed religious organizations and sites such as the Jangchung Cathedral. In reality, religious freedom remains nonexistent in North Korea as authorities actively and systematically target and persecute religious groups and adherents, including Christians, shamanic adherents, Buddhists, and Chondoists.
Information on the condition of adherents of other major religious traditions— such as Buddhism, Catholicism, and Chondoism—in North Korea remains very limited.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Pakistan continued their negative trajectory. The year was filled with reports of targeted killings, lynching, mob violence, forced conversions, and desecration of houses of worship and cemeteries. These violations targeted religious minorities, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and Shi’a Muslim communities. The government continued systematically enforcing blasphemy, anti-Ahmadiyya, and cybercrime laws while failing to protect religious minorities from nonstate actors such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a farright Sunni Islamist organization with growing influence in Pakistan.
Those accused of blasphemy faced violence, imprisonment with limited opportunity for bail, and even death. USCIRF’s Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List highlights 55 individuals detained or imprisoned on blasphemy charges in Pakistan. Mere accusations of blasphemy have incited mobs to violence against members of minority communities and those with differing beliefs. In January 2021, Tabitha Gill, a Christian nurse accused of blasphemy by her colleagues, was beaten and tortured by hospital staff in Karachi. In December, a violent mob in Sialkot killed and burned the body of a Sri Lankan national, Priyantha Kumara, over blasphemy allegations. In August, an angry mob attacked a Hindu temple in Punjab Province after courts granted bail to an eightyear-old Hindu boy who was accused of blasphemy for allegedly desecrating a local religious school. In July, a man acquitted of blasphemy charges was hacked to death by a police constable in Punjab. Though the government has publicly condemned mob violence, it has done little to protect religious minorities or provide justice.
Targeted killings remained a threat to members of religious minorities. In September, a Sikh medical practitioner and community leader was gunned down at his clinic in Peshawar. In March, a Hindu journalist was shot dead in Sukkar for his reporting. There were also two reported targeted killings of Ahmadiyya Muslims, including a homeopathic doctor who was shot and killed in Peshawar in February. Abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape, and forced marriage remained imminent threats for religious minority women and children, particularly from the Christian, Hindu, and Sikh faiths.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in the Russian Federation continued to deteriorate, with the government accelerating its persecution of “nontraditional” religious minorities. Russian authorities punished peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses with record-breaking prison sentences of up to eight years for alleged “extremism.” During the year, the state convicted 105 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including elderly and disabled members as well those residing in Russian-occupied Crimea in Ukraine. Since the group was banned in 2017, there have been 1,678 raids and searches of members’ homes, with 404 occurring in 2021.
The Russian government continued to use an array of problematic legislation to persecute religious minorities, including Muslims, Protestants, members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Falun Gong, and adherents of indigenous religions. The 1996 religion law sets strict registration requirements and empowers state officials to impede and monitor religious groups’ activities. It also broadly defines and prohibits “missionary activities,” including preaching, praying, disseminating religious materials, and answering questions about religion outside of officially designated sites. On April 5, President Vladimir Putin signed amendments to this law that further expanded the state’s ability to restrict religious practice, including more frequent reporting requirements for religious organizations, a mandate for all foreign-educated clergy to be recertified within Russia, and prohibitions for anyone on the government’s expansive extremism and terrorism list from participating in or leading religious groups. Other Russian legislation criminalizes “extremism” without adequately defining the term, and charges of “terrorism” require no advocacy or participation in violence, enabling the state to target a vast range of nonviolent religious activity. In 2021, the Russian government began applying the vague “undesirable organization” label to religious entities, including four Evangelical groups and several organizations linked to the Church of Scientology. Although the legal consequences of this designation remain unclear, it is widely perceived as a step toward an eventual ban on the peaceful religious activity of those targeted.
In 2021, as in past years, peaceful Muslims comprised the majority of political prisoners persecuted in connection with the realization of their right to freedom of religion, according to the Memorial Human Rights Center.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Saudi Arabia remained poor but had some incremental improvements. The government lifted some restrictions to allow women to change their legal names and conduct the Hajj pilgrimage without a male guardian’s permission. As in years prior, the government also removed from textbooks some intolerant content directed at religious minorities, but other intolerant passages remained, and the government continued to support intolerant messaging in other areas. At the same time, Saudi Arabia continued to violate religious freedom egregiously, targeting religious minorities in particular.
In June, the government executed Mostafa al-Darwish, a Shi’a Muslim participant in 2011 protests in the Eastern Province. In August, the government executed Ahmed bin Sa’eed Al Janabi for his participation in the same protests. In March 2021, the government commuted the death sentences of Shi’a prisoners Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher, arrested in relation to protest activity in 2011. All were minors at the time, and human rights organizations allege they were tortured into confessions.
The government also persecuted those who published dissenting religious views on social media. In October, a court sentenced Yemeni journalist Ali Abulohoom to 15 years in prison on apostasy charges for posts on his Twitter account. Throughout the year, the government also continued to forbid any public non-Muslim worship or the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship.
In 2021, religious freedom in Syria remained threatened from numerous quarters, reflecting the country’s 10-year violent conflicts and humanitarian crises.
Although ostensibly secular, the regime is dominated by the President’s Alawi-minority branch of Islam; in 2021, it accelerated its nationalization of religion by increasingly subsuming the Sunni Muslim majority’s power within its own religious institutions. In November, Assad fired the most senior Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, by abolishing his position of Grand Mufti—the powers of which the President had already limited since 2018—and redistributing authority to the Majlis al-Ilm al-Fiqhi, a regime-managed jurisprudential council. The government also continued to strip religious minorities of their autonomy; in February, it finalized its classification of Yazidis as a sect within Islam, forcing them under the legal and religious jurisdiction of a religion to which they do not subscribe. At the same time, armed opposition forces and militant Islamist groups targeted vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities in their attempts to wrest power from the Assad regime and one another. The al-Qaeda offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) remained the dominant governing and religious force in the northwestern region of Idlib. It continued to brutalize minority communities, restricting the worship of Idlib’s indigenous Christians and displacing them by seizing their properties and churches—already rendered vulnerable from attacks by the Assad regime.
In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Vietnam generally trended the same as in 2020. The government continued to enforce the 2018 Law on Belief and Religion, which, as written and implemented, contravened international human rights standards.
Authorities continued to persecute independent religious communities, including Protestant Hmong and Montagnard Christians, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Unified Buddhists, Cao Dai followers, and adherents of other religious movements such as Falun Gong, Duong Van Minh, the World Mission Society Church of God, and Ha Mon. The government designated many of these groups as “strange,” “evil,” or “heretical” religions and often cited security grounds to suppress them, causing some—such as Ha Mon—to reportedly face extinction. As of April 2021, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) listed 85 groups as “strange religions.” ‘
Throughout 2021, authorities routinely disrupted religious services, training, and ceremonies and harassed, detained, and threatened adherents and activists belonging to independent religious groups.