Report: some countries used pandemic to target religious minorities

Anti-Semitism COVID-19 Oct. 15, 2020: Demonstrators in Manhattan protest the treatment of Orthodox Jewish communities during COVID-19/ Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Some countries used the COVID-19 pandemic to target religious minorities last year, a federal commission revealed on Wednesday.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal commission, released its 2021 Annual Report on Wednesday. Among its findings, USCIRF said that some governments targeted religious minorities through misinformation campaigns or with disproportionate restrictions during the pandemic.

USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin, who is also the wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), told reporters on a Wednesday press call that “in many cases, these [public health] measures complied with international human rights standards,” but in some places they did not. 

“There were countries that blamed COVID-19 on a particular religion,” adding, they used the pandemic “as an excuse,” she said.

In Sri Lanka, for example, the report said, authorities required the cremation of those who died from COVID-19, including Muslims, “for whom the practice is religiously prohibited.” 

However, the World Health Organization found there is a lack of evidence to support the claim that the cremation of deceased COVID-19 victims is necessary “for public health reasons.” The report said that Sri Lanka’s requirement was lifted earlier this year. 

The report added that authorities in Vietnam arrested members of the Ha Mon religious group, accusing them of “sabotaging implementation of solidarity practices.” In Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, officials blamed Shi’a religious communities for the spread of COVID-19, “and subjected some neighborhoods and localities to stricter lockdown measures.”

Johnnie Moore, USCIRF commissioner, told reporters that anti-Semitism in Europe and other parts of the world increased as the virus spread. 

“We saw all over the world, the Jewish community in particular targeted,” Moore said, adding that “egregious” and “unconscionable tropes” blamed the Jews for the pandemic. 

Manchin said the commission will monitor COVID restrictions and make sure that, as they are lifted, “they are lifted fairly across the country.” 

USCIRF reports on the state of international religious freedom and global religious persecution, and advocates for the release of prisoners of conscience. 

Regarding the imprisonment of people for their religious or conscientious beliefs, there were positive trends on this issue last year, USCIRF noted. Amid an effort to reduce prison populations as part of COVID-19 public health responses, several countries furloughed or sent to house arrest some prisoners of conscience. 

In addition to noting China’s abuses of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang - actions that the United States has determined to be “genocide” - USCIRF warned about China’s increasing influence abroad. China has harassed and even successfully worked to repatriate Uyghur refugees and others who have fled repression in China, the commission said.

“While the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies and actions have resulted in severe persecution of religious groups within China’s borders, its growing overseas influence and activities also negatively affected religious freedom and other human rights far beyond,” USCIRF said.

Manchin and USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins, who is also president of the Family Research Council, were among US officials recently sanctioned by the Chinese government for their criticisms of Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

“I feel flattered to be recognized by Communist China for calling out genocidal crimes against religious and ethnic minorities in the country,” Manchin told Reuters in a March statement.

On Wednesday, the commission listed 14 countries with the worst records on religious freedom, recommending them to the State Department to be listed as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). The designation is reserved for countries with government policies that foster “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations” of religious freedom. 

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Of these countries, 10 are already designated by the State Department as CPCs - Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. USCIRF recommended that four other countries be added to the CPC list - India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam. 

The report also recommended 12 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List for “their governments’ perpetration or toleration of severe violations” of religious freedom. These countries included Cuba and Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

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