WASHINGTON (RNS)â€”The State Department should add Russia to its list of the worst violators of religious freedom, a U.S. commission declared in its annual report.
TheÂ U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedomâ€”founded to advise the federal governmentâ€”comes out with its list of shame each year, citing the most abusive countries in a lineupÂ consistently longer than the State Departmentâ€™s.
This year, the commission report includedÂ aÂ dissenting report from its vice chair criticizing the commission for failing to investigate Israel.
Designated Russia a country of particular concern
The commission recommended the United States should designateÂ Russia as a â€œcountry of particular concern,â€Â forÂ wielding an anti-extremist law to violate the religious freedom of Muslims and other minorities.
Most recently, Russia bannedÂ Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses, labeling them â€œextremistâ€ and ordering the state to seize their properties.
â€œTheyâ€™re treating these people like theyâ€™re terrorists,â€ said Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest who chairs the commission, referring to Russiaâ€™s treatment of the Witnesses. â€œTheyâ€™re pacifists, they donâ€™t want to be involved in politics and they just want to be left alone. The (Russian) Supreme Court has basically said theyâ€™re illegal.â€
Globally, â€œthe commission has concluded that the state of affairs for international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations,â€ Reese said.
Iraq and Egypt not included on list
The commissionâ€™s list this year differs from itsÂ 2016 list with the addition of Russia, but also dropping Egypt and Iraq, a move that may surprise some, given continuing deadly attacks on Christians in those countries.
But while violence against Christians in those nationsÂ remains a horrificÂ problem, Reese said, the commission wanted to highlight the concrete steps both the Egyptian and Iraqi governments have taken to protect religious minorities.
Inn Egypt, for example, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi â€œconsistently has made noteworthy public statements and gestures encouraging religious tolerance and moderation, has condemned sectarianÂ attacks and assisted victims, and has urged reform of textbooks and religious discourse in society, an important shift in tone and rhetoric from his predecessors,â€ according to the report.
Still, Egypt and Iraq are on the commissionâ€™s list of â€œTier 2â€ countries, which are consideredÂ violators of religious freedom, but not as problematic as the countries of particular concern.
Commissioner faults group for not critiquing Israel
On the same day of the reportâ€™s release,Â one commissioner, Arab-American and Democratic Party activist James Zogby, held a newsÂ conference to discuss his dissent to the report, in which he criticizes the commissionâ€™s refusal to investigate Israel.
Zogby, flanked by sympathetic Christians in a Lutheran church on Capitol Hill, said Israel discriminates against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews but gets a free pass from the commission.
â€œI did not look for this issue; it came to us,â€ said Zogby, who cited a lengthy study from young lawyers in the West Bankâ€”occupied by Israelâ€”thatÂ concluded Israel fails to meet international standards on religious freedom on which other nations are judged.
Other commissioners, Zogby said, were â€œbulliedâ€ to oppose an investigation. ThoseÂ petitioning for an investigation were dismissed as anti-Semites, and some commissioners feared the commission would lose congressional support for investigating Israel, heÂ said.
JoiningÂ Zogby were Aundreia Alexander, associateÂ general secretary of the National Council of Churches; Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary emeritus of the Reformed Church in America; and Drew Christiansen ofÂ Georgetown Universityâ€™sÂ Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.
Many groups and individuals, including Zogby, propose the commission launch investigations, Reese said, but without a majority vote of commissioners, those investigations donâ€™t go forward.
â€œJim proposed it, but he didnâ€™t get a majority,â€ said Reese, who added the commission reports often include dissents.Â Â
Worst offenders identified
Sixteen countries are on the 2017 list of countries of particular concern: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran,Â Nigeria,Â North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan,Â Syria,Â Tajikistan,Â Turkmenistan,Â Uzbekistan andÂ Vietnam.
TheÂ 10 countries on the State Departmentâ€™s list of prime religious freedom offenders, designated in 2016, are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.