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11/21/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Worldwide, religious freedom is faltering. Governments from North Korea to Nepal have not only continued, but increased their practices of intolerance, discrimination, and persecution of religious minorities. According to a recent Pew Research Center study , government restrictions on religion are on the rise; the window to address these concerns is closing. As this trend continues, the United States is uniquely positioned to take a leading role in the fight against religious persecution.

This summer, President Trump announced the nomination of Gov. Samuel Brownback (KS) as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The governor responded to the nomination, saying, “Religious freedom is the first freedom; the choice of what you do with your own soul.”

Shortly thereafter, the State Department released its Annual International Religious Freedom (IRF) report as Secretary Tillerson claimed religious freedom is a “core American value…and universal human right.” These appeared to be the resilient words of an administration prepared to passionately promote the First Freedom. Yet, as we draw ever closer to the end of the year, so also does conviction to indifference. Brownback’s nomination lies dormant in the Senate. The State Department’s highly anticipated list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) has also missed its announcement deadline. It appears that the US government, once capable of motivating significant changes, now shows signs of improved relations with frequently designated CPCs. The government often conducts business with China and Saudi Arabia and does little to stand against the repressive governments of nations such as Burma and Sudan.

So what exactly does a designation by the State Department entail? Because the State Department is the primary avenue through which US foreign policy is enacted, it wields tremendous power and influence in international affairs. Thus, a designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the State Department carries particular weight. To be designated as a CPC, a nation must have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” These three qualifiers are evaluated by State Department staff as well as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Each year, USCIRF recommends 16 countries that fit these characteristics. The State Department considers these and other recommendations and chooses a select group to be designated as CPCs.

The current list of designated countries is as follows: China, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While several of these countries are currently under some form of economic sanctions, a designation as a Country of Particular Concern does not guarantee additional economic ramifications. Non-economic options intended to bring about change are usually attempted prior to the enforcement of any economic sanctions. Furthermore, designated countries often qualify for other economic sanctions under US foreign policy. However, as previously mentioned, being included on the list of CPCs can equate to increased pressure from the international community, as well as embarrassment for the country being named. At times, merely highlighting the atrocities that occur is reason enough for these nations to quell their persecutory policies, highlighting the CPC designation as a critical tool in the US government’s diplomatic arsenal.

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which passed last year after major advocacy efforts from International Christian Concern (ICC) and other like-minded organizations, requires the president to make CPC designations no later than 90 days after the release of the State Department IRF report. As November 13 came and went, it became clear that the administration would not be meeting that congressionally mandated obligation. This is concerning given the attention that Congress has shown regarding international religious freedom in recent months, as well as the importance of the CPC designations to the cause of religious freedom abroad.

On October 27, six Senate foreign relations committee members – Rubio, Coons, Young, Merkley, Lankford, and Menendez – sent a letter urging the State Department to include Pakistan as a part of their upcoming CPC list. This designation has long been recommended by USCIRF and widely supported by the NGO community.

In addition, there have been several key pieces of legislation within the IRF community that reflect current congressional interest. A house resolution was drafted and introduced, condemning the persecution of Christians worldwide and has 33 cosponsors to date. This measure passed the foreign affairs committee on the 15th of this month. H.R. 390, a bill recognizing the genocide of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, received unanimous support in the House and is currently awaiting Senate approval. Both of these resolutions portray a larger trend of valuing freedom of belief, a policy that this administration has clearly spoken in favor of previously.

As USCIRF’s Chairman Daniel Mark stated, “Failing to designate CPCs tells the violators of religious freedom around the world that the United States is looking away…We urge the State Department to rapidly designate the 16 countries recommended by USCIRF. Such an action would be a strong message to religious freedom abusers that the United States is paying attention and takes seriously these violations.”