The global refugee crisis, political strife and economic dislocation all contributed to a worldwide deterioration of religious freedom in 2015 and an increase in "societal intolerance," according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
"At best, in most of the countries we cover, religious freedom conditions have failed to improve," says Princeton professor Robert George, the USCIRF chairman. "At worst, they've spiraled downward."
In its annual report, the commission identified 17 countries as "Tier One" concerns, meaning they have "particularly severe religious violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious." That category includes Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims are denied voting rights and access to health care; Tajikistan, where the government suppresses all religious activity not under its direct control; and Nigeria, where the commission concluded that the government has "no effective strategies to stem the violence" carried out by Boko Haram, the Muslim extremist group.
Among the countries where religious freedom conditions grew significantly worse in 2015 were Iran, where the number of "prisoners of conscience" has grown since President Hassan Rouhani took office. The commission also singled out India, a key U.S. ally, where the ruling Hindu nationalist party known as the BJP completed its first full year in office under Prime Minister Narenda Modi since winning national elections in 2014. In the months since, Muslim and Christian groups have reported increasing harassment and a growing number of attacks, attributed to Hindu nationalist groups.
"The national government has failed to address these problems," George says, "and at times seems to have contributed to them."
The commission, set up by Congress as an independent body under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, is instructed to identify "Countries of Particular Concern," but it is up to the State Department to make that official designation. The U.S. government is then obligated to take action with those countries, possibly including sanctions, to encourage improvements. In its 2015 report, the commission identifies seven countries as deserving of CPC designation but not yet so categorized. Among them are Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan, all three of which have close security ties with the U.S.
The commission is prohibited by law from assessing conditions in the United States, but its report does have some implications for the U.S. political debate. The commission report, for example, calls on the United States to commit to the resettlement of 100,000 Syrian refugees, subject to "proper vetting," and it carefully differentiates between different forms of Islam, at a time when some U.S. politicians have spoken critically of the religion as a whole.
"We do not believe that the problem is Islam itself," says George.