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Religious freedom watchdog pitches adding India to blacklist

An Indian Muslim man prays in a Mosque during the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of new coronavirus in Gauhati, India, Monday, April 27, 2020. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging that the State Department add India to its list of nations with uniquely poor records on protecting freedom to worship, while proposing to remove Sudan and Uzbekistan from that list. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
An Indian Muslim man prays in a Mosque during the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of new coronavirus in Gauhati, India, Monday, April 27, 2020. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging that the State Department add India to its list of nations with uniquely poor records on protecting freedom to worship, while proposing to remove Sudan and Uzbekistan from that list. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW YORK – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging that the State Department add India to its list of nations with uniquely poor records on protecting freedom to worship — while proposing to remove Sudan and Uzbekistan from that list.

The bipartisan commission, created in 1998 by Congress to make policy recommendations about global religious freedom, proposed designating India as a “country of particular concern” in the annual report it released Tuesday. That lower ranking for a long-running U.S. ally amounts to a stark show of disapproval of India's divisive new citizenship law, which has sparked broad worries about disenfranchisement of Muslims.

President Donald Trump declined to criticize the citizenship measure during his February visit to India, where his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was punctuated by skirmishes between Hindus and Muslims.

The commission, by contrast, is empowered as an independent arbiter to look only at nations' religious freedom records, apart from their relationship with the United States, vice chair Nadine Maenza said.

Beyond the citizenship law, Maenza said in an interview, India has a broader “move toward clamping down on religious minorities that’s really troublesome.”

A spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs, Anurag Srivastava, responded to the report with a statement blasting the commission's “biased and tendentious comments against" that nation. Noting that some members dissented from the commission's decision to recommend India for the lowest ranking of religious freedom protections, Srivastava appeared to use the commission's internal terminology as a dig.

“We regard (the commission) as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” he said.

In the cases of Sudan and Uzbekistan, the Trump administration got out ahead of the commission in raising its ranking of religious freedom protections. The State Department decided in December to no longer rank Sudan as a nation “of particular concern" after having taken Uzbekistan off the list earlier.

Following last year's military ouster of authoritarian leader, Omar al-Bashir, new Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with the commission and committed to improve religious freedom, Maenza said.

Among the other significant recommendations in Tuesday's report was a call for the U.S. government to “exert significant pressure on Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from Syria.” Turkey's incursion into northern Syria last fall sparked broad concern about resulting threats to religious minorities in the region.

The commission proposed four other nations join India in the ranks of most egregious religious freedom offenders; Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. The State Department's current list of “countries of particular concern” regarding religious freedom includes China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.

Inclusion among the nations with the poorest religious freedom records can lead to new sanctions, although the executive branch is also empowered to rely on already-imposed sanctions or issue a waiver.

Sudan and Uzbekistan are currently on a State Department watch list for nations where religious freedom infringement is not as widespread, constant and significant as those in the lowest-ranked tier.

The commission's latest annual report recommends the addition of 11 more nations that the State Department has not yet put on that watch list: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Turkey.

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Associated Press writer Emily Schmall contributed from New Delhi.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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