A U.S. government commission on religious freedom is recommending that Russia be designated as a "country of particular concern" (CPC), putting it in a group of the world's worst offenders of basic rights on religious worship.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its annual report on April 26 that it is, for the first time, recommending Russia be recognized as a offender along with 15 other countries.
The commission said Russia is unique among the countries in its report because it is the only state that "not only continually intensified its repression of religious freedom" but also "expanded its repressive policies to the territory of a neighboring state," a reference to Moscow's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The report also cited a 2016 law that it said "effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state."
Known as "Yarovaya's Law," the legislation tightens restrictions on the activities of religious groups -- particularly smaller denominations such as the Mormons and some Christian evangelical sects.
It also noted a Russian Supreme Court ruling earlier in April that imposed a nationwide ban against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
USCIRF Chairman Thomas Reese said the United States needs to "send a clear message to Russia that we will not tolerate its continued campaign of attack and intimidation against freedom or religion and beliefs."
The commission also recommended that Pakistan be named a CPC, as it had done in 2016 when then-Secretary of State John Kerry rejected the recommendation.
Pakistan has been selected by the commission for offender status each year since 2002, but the State Department has rejected the recommendation every time.
The latest commission report said Pakistan's government has "continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations."
It also cited "discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country's blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiya laws" which it says still result in believers being prosecuted and imprisoned.
There are currently 10 countries designated by the United States as the world's worst offenders of religious freedom: Burma (aka Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The commission has recommended that along with Russia and Pakistan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam be added to the CPC list.
Reese said in the 2017 annual report that international religious freedom "is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations."
At an April 26 press conference in Washington D.C., Reese was particularly critical of Russia -- calling the ban against Jehovah's Witnesses a "very serious violation" of religious freedom.
"It is banning a religion throughout the country; it is going to be confiscating their property [and] basically declaring them outlaws," said Reese, a Jesuit cleric. "We do not feel that religious freedom is respected when a government decides who can be a religion and can't be a religion.... We believe that people should have the right to believe what they want...and to assemble as believers and worship together."
Reese also said the commission is not only worried about the judgment against the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"We are also very concerned about what is happening in terms of religious freedom in Ukraine, where Russia has invaded a country illegally and occupied it, and is now imposing its religious restrictions, it's very tough registration laws, on the religions in the Crimea," Reese said.
He cited the Crimean Tatars as being the hardest hit by representatives of Russia in Crimea, but noted that the Ukrainian Catholic Church has also experienced problems and that Russians "are not allowing them to practice their religion."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be responsible for determining whether to add Russia and the other five recommended states recommended to the list of countries "of particular concern."
Once added, the law states that U.S. officials must seek to hold negotiations with authorities from the offending countries and to come up with ways to resolve the complaints regarding violations of religious freedom.
A failure to come up with such resolutions is supposed to result in the imposition of sanctions.
For the first time, the U.S. freedom or religion commission designated nonstate entities as "entities of particular concern," or EPCs.
Reese said the commission was recommending that Islamic State (IS) extremists in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia be the first such designated entities.
The USCIRF is a bipartisan U.S. federal government commission made of nine commissioners and headed by Reese -- a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
The commission was created by Congress in 1998 and issues an annual report each year, making recommendations and giving advice to the president, Congress, and the State Department on which countries are the worst violators of freedom of religion and beliefs.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.