The USCIRF chairman told CNA that he is concerned that both Russia and China intensified repression of religious freedom over the course of 2017.
"Russia, which we recommended for designation for the very first time last year, continued to deteriorate. The repression in some of the post-Soviet Central Asian states have followed Russia's model, sadly," said Mark.
The report notes that Russia is the only country to have expanded its repressive policies to a neighboring territory by means of military invasion. Crimean Tatar Muslims are being kidnapped, tortured, and imprisoned in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
"Russia is such a big player on the world stage. It is really important that the message be sent clearly," said Mark referring to religious freedom.
The report also mentioned religious persecution in China, including persecution of Catholics, noting that 2017 marked 60 years since the creation of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
In 2017, China increased government control over its recognized religions as a part of President Xi Jinping's campaign to "manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with 'Chinese characteristics.'"
Two regions of China with significant ethnic and religious minority populations, Xinjiang and Tibet, "increasingly resemble police states," the report said.
"Monks and nuns who refuse to denounce the Dalai Lama or pledge loyalty to Beijing have been expelled from their monasteries, imprisoned, and tortured."
The report also cites mounting revelations of the Chinese authorities torturing other prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders to force confessions and compel individuals to renounce their faith.
In its 2018 report, USCIRF also recognized 12 additional countries with a Tier 2 status of less severe or systemic religious freedom violations: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.
USCIRF recommends in the report that the U.S. government prioritize efforts to advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience. Chairman Daniel Mark pointed to the recent trip of Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to Turkey on behalf of imprisoned Christian pastor Andrew Brunson as a good example.
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Mark also highlighted that there have been some improvements in international religious freedom efforts during the past year.
"The pushback against ISIS in Iraq and recapturing all or almost all of the territory from them has been absolutely critical in saving lives. And another thing that gets much less noticed is international cooperation. It was great to see that on January 1st Denmark opened a new office with an ambassador representative covering this issue and we hope to see more countries follow," he said.
The Islamic State was one of the non-state actors that USCIRF report recommended to be designated as an Entity of Particular Concern, along with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed in December 2016 requires the U.S. government to also identify these non-state actors as Entities of Particular Concern or EPCs.