House chairman: State Department is giving religious freedom violators ‘a pass’

Nigeria Holy Week 2 Residents of Ngbam, Benue state, Nigeria, on April 8, 2023, the day after gunmen killed at least 43 people and injured another 40. | Courtesy of Justice, Development, and Peace Commission

Religious liberty advocates in a hearing on Tuesday shared details with members of Congress on the dire state of religious freedom in countries around the world. 

Advocates highlighted several nations, including India, Nigeria, and Nicaragua, where, according to human rights advocates, violations have been largely ignored by the U.S. and the international community, according to witnesses.

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations hosted the hearing, which was chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey.

“Billions of people around the world — half of the world’s population — are not able to practice their faith freely,” Smith said in his opening remarks.

Smith said that “assaults on religious freedom are a major threat to U.S. national security” and “the worst violators of religious freedom globally are often the biggest threats to our nation,” which he said “is no coincidence.”

“Unfortunately,” Smith went on, “I am concerned that the U.S. State Department is not using all the tools provided to hold guilty parties accountable.”

According to Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and several other advocates who testified, despite serious religious freedom violations India and Nigeria remain off the State Department’s blacklist known as the “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) list.

And though the U.S. government has begun to take a more serious stance against the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo dictatorship in Nicaragua, with sanctions being levied and National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby firmly condemning the regime in May, the experts testified that serious violations continue to occur. 

“I am convinced that there is more the United States can do to protect and promote the freedom of religion worldwide,” Smith said. “Time and time again, violators of religious freedom are given a pass in the department’s Country of Particular Concern designations.”


The second most populous country in the world that is expected to soon overtake China as the largest, millions of Christians and Muslims in India are being persecuted today, and the situation is rapidly escalating, Cooper said.

“India, the world’s largest democracy and long one of its most vibrant, has continued its descent into discriminatory religious nationalism and worsening religious freedom,” Cooper told the subcommittee. 

“Government actions including the passage and enforcement of discriminatory policies such as hijab bans, anti-conversion laws, and anti-cow-slaughter laws have created a culture of impunity for threats and violence by vigilante groups, especially against Muslims and Christians.”

“Meanwhile the government has increasingly repressed critical voices, especially religious minorities and those advocating for them through surveillance, harassment, and prosecution,” Cooper said.

He added that “the State Department’s own corroborative reporting corroborates these worsening conditions, setting in stark relief its failure to name India as a CPC or special watchlist country.”

India is a parliamentary government with a strong Hindu majority. Despite mounting attacks against the religious liberty of Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities, India remains off the CPC list and is a major trade partner with the U.S.

Anti-conversion laws throughout the country punish Indians who convert from Hindu to other religions or creeds with fines and jail time. According to USCIRF’s 2023 report, Christians and Muslims face constant mob violence and destruction of homes, churches, and property, all of which go unnoticed by the government.

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been making headlines recently on his global tour in which he visited with many world leaders, including President Joe Biden. While in the United States, the Biden administration extended an extremely rare honor to Modi in which he was invited to give an address to a joint session of Congress.

Susan Hayward, associate director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life Program, who testified during the hearing, remarked that “one thing I would probably suggest is that we don’t invite leaders who are violating religious freedom in their own countries to offer addresses of joint sessions of Congress.”

Smith told CNA that “the anti-conversion laws continue to be a serious problem” and that he has been increasingly hearing about “a crackdown on faith” in the country.

“Modi is not a friend of religious freedom, period,” Smith said. “He hasn’t been his entire life in public service; now he’s got the reins of power and we’re very worried about the Dalits [lower-class Indians], many of whom are Christians who are prejudiced against, many were forced into trafficking because they are abused because of their status.”

“If you look at a religious freedom report on India, everywhere you look there are violations of religious freedom, which is baffling as to why they’re not on the CPC [list],” Smith added.  


Christians in Nigeria, meanwhile, continue to face widespread and mounting violence and persecution, Cooper said.

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“In Nigeria, religious freedom conditions remain abysmal, with state and nonstate actors committing particularly severe violations against both Christians and Muslims,” he said.

“While some officials have worked to address widespread religious freedom violations, others actively infringe on the religious freedom rights of Nigerians, including by enforcing ‘blasphemy laws,’” Cooper added. 

“Criminal activity and violent armed group incidents impacting religious freedom have continued to worsen. Sadly, Nigeria has become a country steeped in religious freedom violations where people of faith and those of no faith at all increasingly live in fear of harassment, intimidation, and violence.”

Though originally scheduled to testify during the hearing, Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of Nigeria’s Makurdi Diocese was unable to make the trip. CNA spoke with Father Remigius Ihyula, coordinator of the diocese’s Justice, Development, and Peace Commission, about the situation on the ground in Nigeria.

Ihyula has been helping to care for the millions of displaced persons in the country. He told CNA that despite claims that the violence in Nigeria is being carried out due to climate change the true reason is religious persecution, perpetrated largely by nomadic Fulani tribesmen.

“Our brothers and sisters in America should know that this is taking place,” Ihyula told CNA. “They machete them, they riddle their bodies with bullets so that others will see and be afraid of even venturing to go close to where they are occupying.”

“This is purely a religious desire to dominate and occupy spaces and claim that this country is Islamic,” Ihyula said. “In this age and time, this is taking place; they should know that brothers and sisters every day are killed.”


Florida Republican Rep. Maria Salazar pointed out that “there have been over 400 attacks on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua in the last four years.”

Salazar questioned U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain on the Biden administration’s response to the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

Her questions focused primarily on the recent re-imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was arbitrarily condemned to more than 26 years in prison on treason charges.

Noting that Álvarez has been imprisoned now for one full year, Salazar asked if the administration had any information on the well-being and status of the bishop, to which Hussain said “yes.”

“We are in touch with those close to him, if we are able to have a conversation in a more closed setting we can give you a little more details,” he said. “I just want to make sure that I’m protecting information that allows for our efforts to do as much as possible. We are very concerned for his well-being.”

Salazar then asked Hussain if the administration in addition to having Nicaragua on the CPC list would consider placing Ortega’s political party, known as the “Sandinistas,” on the U.S.’s blacklist of entities. Salazar suggested that this designation, which comes with its own set of sanctions, could be used as leverage to better the religious freedom situation in Nicaragua and to free Álvarez.

Hussain said that the administration had not considered this approach but noted he was open to considering it.

After the hearing, Smith told CNA that he believes Salazar’s suggestion to designate the Sandinista party an entity of particular concern is “a great idea.”

“When I wrote the [Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom] law in 2016, I put in entities of particular concern, not just countries,” Smith pointed out. “Countries are important; entities need to be singled out.”

“It would be perfect for [the Sandinistas] to be an entity of particular concern, sanction them,” Smith added. “I think it’s another good step to hold these people accountable.”

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