In 2019, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was gratified by important progress to improve religious freedom conditions in two countries where the governments engaged closely with USCIRF to bring positive change. The year saw remarkable changes in Sudan, a country USCIRF has recommended for “country of particular concern” (CPC) designation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) every year since USCIRF’s first set of CPC recommendations in 2000. A brave, grassroots protest movement brought down the Islamist-led regime of former president Omar al-Bashir in April, followed by the establishment of a joint civilian-military transitional government four months later. The transitional constitution no longer identifies Islam as the primary source of law, and it includes a provision ensuring the freedom of belief and worship. In November, the transitional government, which has engaged closely with USCIRF on religious freedom concerns, repealed the repressive public order laws that the former regime used to punish individuals, particularly women, who did not conform to its interpretation of Sunni Islam. While much work remains to extend full religious freedom to all Sudanese—including repealing apostasy and blasphemy laws— enough positive change has come to the country that, in this Annual Report, USCIRF is now recommending Sudan for the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List (SWL), a lesser category, rather than for CPC designation. The positive trajectory in Sudan is depicted in the photographs on this year’s cover, which show the protests that led to the Bashir regime’s removal; transitional Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in a December meeting with USCIRF in Washington, DC; and a Sufi worship ceremony that USCIRF witnessed during its February 2020 visit to Sudan.
Likewise, Uzbekistan took significant steps in 2019 to fulfill its commitments of the last few years to improve religious freedom conditions, also in close consultation with USCIRF. Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the government ended its longstanding practice of raiding religious communities for unregistered activity or unauthorized distribution or possession of literature. In August, in a move recommended by USCIRF, the government announced it would close the infamous Jasliq Prison where, in the past, two religious prisoners had been boiled alive. Although the government of Uzbekistan has yet to revise its problematic laws regulating religion, as it has pledged to do, or to address its continued imprisonment of many peaceful Muslims, based on the encouraging changes over the past year USCIRF is recommending the country for the State Department’s SWL in this Annual Report, after having recommended it for CPC designation every year since 2005.
On the other hand, India took a sharp downward turn in 2019. The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. Most notably, it enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which provides a fast track to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India. According to government officials’ statements, this law is meant to provide protection for listed non-Muslim religious communities—but not for Muslims—against exclusion from a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the resulting detention, deportation, and potential statelessness. The national and various state governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity, and engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence against them. Based on these developments, in this report USCIRF recommends CPC designation for India.
Created by IRFA, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the State Department, that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. USCIRF bases these recommendations on its statutory mandate and the standards in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international documents. USCIRF’s mandate and annual reports are different from, and complementary to, the mandate and annual reports of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.