Here are the countries that rank worst in the world in religious freedom

Here are the countries that rank worst in the world in religious freedom

By Peter Pinedo

May 2, 2024

Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a new report on Wednesday highlighting the countries with the worst religious persecution in the world.

From this report, which is released annually, USCIRF makes recommendations to the State Department on how to best advocate for religious freedom. The suggestions typically translate into sanctions from the U.S. against violating countries to pressure them to improve their religious tolerance.

This year, the countries topping USCIRF’s list of the world’s most egregious religious freedom violators were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

USCIRF recommends these nations be designated as “countries of particular concern,” or “CPCs,” a label that has been called America’s “most powerful tool” to advocate for religious freedom.

Here are some of the countries with the most concerning religious freedom trends in the last year:

Afghanistan

Religious freedom and free expression have continued to deteriorate in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, according to the report. The country is violently enforcing an apostasy law that bans conversions from Islam. The report also said that in the last year, the Taliban implemented a series of measures to seriously restrict women’s dress, movement, access to education, and employment. Despite USCIRF’s recommendation, Afghanistan is not currently a CPC, although the Taliban is designated as an “entity of particular concern” (EPC).

Azerbaijan

A majority Muslim country, Azerbaijan was included in USCIRF’s CPC list this year for the first time. The country has been increasingly encroaching on the religious rights of both Azerbaijani Muslims as well as of ethnic minorities, such as the Armenian Christians. According to the report, Azerbaijani citizens are “routinely” harassed, fined, and imprisoned based on their religious activities. The report said that 183 “peaceful believers” were unjustly imprisoned in Azerbaijan in 2023 because of their religious beliefs or activities.

After a violent Azerbaijani takeover of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and a subsequent mass exodus of Armenian Christians, USCIRF reported that several historic Christian sites have been damaged and there remain serious concerns about further threats to the region’s ancient religious sites. Azerbaijan also evicted Armenian Apostolic priests from the historic Dadivank Monastery in the Kalbajar region along the Armenian border.

China

The most populous country in the world, China is a mainstay of USCIRF’s CPC list because of its continued “sinicization” program, which subjects all its citizens and all religions in the country to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Under China’s communist government, all religions are strictly controlled by the state and any unauthorized religious activity is dealt with severely. In 2023, the report said, Chinese authorities continued to “forcibly disappear” and convict underground Catholic priests, including two bishops. The government also continues to subject the Muslim Uyghurs to forced labor and indoctrination camps and to persecute and imprison thousands of members of the Falun Gong religious movement.

India

The second-most populous country in the world, India is increasingly emerging as a leader on the world stage. Despite this, India, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu Nationalist government, has witnessed deteriorating religious freedom conditions. Though the country’s constitution protects the right to practice one’s faith, much of the country enforces anti-conversion laws. According to the report, thousands of Christians and Muslims were subjected to attacks and intimidation in 2023 while hundreds of churches and mosques were destroyed.

Iran

Citizens in the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to suffer “extremely poor” religious freedom conditions, according to the report. In 2023, protesters against the government’s mandatory hijab laws and other restrictions on religion were systematically harassed, arrested, raped, tortured, and, in some cases, executed. Religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims, were severely punished, sometimes executed, whenever caught violating the country’s strict Islamic law.

Nicaragua

Nicaraguan dictators Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo intensified their persecution of the Catholic Church and other religious groups in 2023. In the last year, the dictatorship seized the assets and properties of Catholic churches, monasteries, and schools and arbitrarily imprisoned and exiled hundreds of Catholics and political dissidents. Bishop Rolando Alvarez, a longtime critic of the Ortega-Murillo regime, was sentenced to 26 years in prison, where he spent all of 2023 with little to no contact with the outside world. This January he was exiled from Nicaragua to the Vatican.

Nigeria

More than 8,000 Christians were killed across Nigeria last year, according to the report. On Christmas weekend alone, a series of attacks resulted in the deaths of 190 Christians in Nigeria’s Plateau state.

Nigerian Christians, who make up 46% of the population, were the victims of widespread attacks, kidnappings, torture, and acts of intimidation by criminal elements that were largely ignored by the Nigerian government.

Despite continued persecution and consistent recommendations from USCIRF to designate Nigeria a CPC, the State Department under the Biden administration has excluded this country from the list since 2021.

Pakistan

Terrorist attacks against religious minorities and places of worship increased significantly in Pakistan in 2023, according to the report. The government moved to further strengthen prohibitions against “blasphemy,” which observers say is a method of targeting religious minorities. In August a mob attacked a Christian community in Jaranwala over an accusation of blasphemy. The mob destroyed and looted many homes in the community and damaged at least 24 churches.

Other concerning trends

Transnational persecution on the rise: USCIRF reported that in addition to carrying out persecutions within their borders, several governments “engaged in transnational repression to silence religious minorities.” Chief among these were the governments of China and India, both of whom increased their international efforts to target religious minorities who had fled their borders. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan also engaged in transnational repression as well.

Blasphemy laws: According to the report, blasphemy laws are one of the most significant challenges to religious freedom in the world. These laws work by punishing acts that are deemed offensive to the prevailing religion or ideology. There are 96 countries with active blasphemy laws, many of which are used to foment violence toward religious minorities, according to USCIRF.

Europe: Some European countries were also mentioned in the report as exhibiting concerning trends regarding religious freedom. The report highlighted how U.K. citizen Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested for silently praying outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham, England. Additionally, the report mentioned Finnish member of Parliament Päivi Räsänen, who has faced multiple human rights violation charges for expressing her religious views on sexuality and marriage.

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