Rise in religious persecution fueled in part by authoritarianism, says U.S. watchdog agency

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Religious Persecution
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, pictured in an undated photo, was arrested in March 2023, for praying silently outside an abortion facility in Birmingham, England (OSV News photo/courtesy ADF UK)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — An increase in religious persecution around the globe was fueled in part by a rise in authoritarianism, according to a recent annual report.

But religious freedom concerns did not only present themselves in nations under authoritarian regimes, the report said. One such case was the arrest of a Catholic woman in England for her silent prayer outside an abortion clinic.

USCIRF observations on authoritarian regimes

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that monitors religious freedom around the globe. In preparing its 2024 report, the commission noticed a trend of authoritarian regimes persecuting people of faith, USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck told OSV News.

“We are seeing a global spike in persecution and discrimination on the basis of religion,” Schneck said. “And it’s related to the rise of authoritarianism, really all over the world.”

Authoritarian regimes, broadly, resent other sources of influence on their populations, Schneck said. One such example, he said, was Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s anti-Catholic persecution, which is growing to extend to Protestant groups critical of his regime.

“Millions and millions” of people around the globe are being “denied the kind of religious freedom that USCIRF, and, frankly, international law and international declarations stand for,” Schneck said.

Threats to Jews, Muslims and Catholics

Schneck also cited a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia as global trends presenting cause for concern, as is the destruction of religious sites in places with armed conflict, including Gaza and Ukraine.

Asked about threats to Catholics, Schneck said in addition to Nicaragua, the group is “very concerned about the situation for Catholics in China,” as well as Hong Kong, where Cardinal Joseph Zen, a critic of the Chinese regime, was arrested in May 2022, although later released on bail. The cardinal was one of six activists fined for their roles in a group seeking to help those arrested in 2019’s pro-democracy protests get legal support, Al Jazeera reported.

Schneck also said Russia presents concerns for Catholics, as well as in Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine.

Religious freedom concerns in Europe

A section of the report about religious freedom concerns in Europe said that “several European governments targeted individuals for their peaceful religious expression.”

Among those examples, the report said, was an instance in England in which “authorities in Birmingham arrested and launched an investigation against Isabel Vaughan-Spruce for silently praying outside an abortion clinic within a ‘buffer zone’ where a city council order prohibits protests, including prayer. By the end of September, the city announced that it would not charge Vaughan-Spruce.”

Asked about that section of the report, Schneck said, “what’s happening in Europe is a kind of militant secularism that has an antipathy toward religion to some extent.” Schneck also pointed to French restrictions on religious garments, including the Jewish yarmulke and the Islamic hijab.

“Nothing in Europe reaches the level of persecution and discrimination that we see in special watchlist countries, in countries of particular concern,” he said. “Are there things that we’re concerned about them that we’re watching, but nothing, nothing is close to that level? Yeah.”

USCIRF recommendations and designations

USCIRF recommended 17 countries in its 2024 Annual Report to the U.S. Department of State for designation as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, based on their “governments engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief,” the agency said. The State Department previously designated 12 of the countries on USCIRF’s list as CPCs in December 2023: Burma (Myanmar), China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

USCIF made five additional recommendations in its report, released May 1: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria and Vietnam due to what they called deteriorating conditions in those nations.

The International Religious Freedom Act requires the U.S. government to designate CPCs annually. CPCs are defined in law and policy as countries where governments either engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom. Non-state actors who engage in similar conduct are designated as “entities of particular concern.”

According to the State Department, when a country is designated as a CPC, Congress is notified and “where non-economic policy options designed to bring about the cessation of the particularly severe violations of religious freedom have reasonably been exhausted, an economic measure generally must be imposed.”

Kate Scanlon

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington.