Annual Report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom


United States citizens enjoy a significant amount of religious freedom; however, the same cannot be said for individuals in many other countries around the world. Recently, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) produced its annual report on international religious freedom, and unfortunately, significant violations of religious liberties continue to be perpetrated against people all around the world. This post will briefly summarize the history and mission of USCIRF, the uniqueness of the USCIRF report, and finally, the key findings and recommendations of the Commission.

History and Mission

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. It was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and functions to independently advise Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President, on policy recommendations in response to violations of religious freedom based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fact-finding is carried out through travel to the different countries in question, where public hearings are held and research is conducted. The Commission exists to promote religious freedom rights like the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This includes the right to choose not to believe in anything at all or to change one’s mind.

Unique Methodology

While there are other reports released concerning religious freedom violations, such as the International Religious Freedom Report produced by the U.S. State Department, the USCIRF report is uniquely different and complementary to other reports in several ways. First, the USCIRF report focuses on the 30 or so countries that have the worst violations of religious freedom, whereas the State Department report addresses the level of religious freedom in every country in the world except the United States. Second, USCIRF operates independently and objectively when it reports of religious freedom violations. The State Department must consider how its reporting will affect the overall bilateral relationship with each country. Third, USCIRF’s report also features select prisoners of conscience, including their photographs, thus putting a face to the violations and humanizing the victims of human rights violators.

Findings and Recommendations

USCIRF categorizes countries into two different tiers based on their restriction of religious freedom. Tier 1 describes countries that tolerate rather severe restrictions of religious freedom, and these countries are known as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs. A CPC tolerates or initiates restrictions that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious. A Tier 2 classification is reserved for nations found to be engaged in severely restrictive behavior, and fulfill one or more of the three requirements for a Tier 1 classification. This year USCIRF classified 16 countries as CPCs, and 12 countries as deserving of the Tier 2 standard. Tier 1 CPCs include Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. Tier 2 CPCs include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey.

Additionally, USCIRF has identified five organizations as “entities of particular concern,” or EPCs. These non-state actors possess a certain amount of political or territorial influence and use violence to restrict religious freedom. EPCs include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Houthis, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

USCIRF made recommendations to both the Trump Administration and Congress based on its findings. 

The Commission recommended that the Administration 1) appoint a Special Advisor to the President on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council staff, 2) increase sanctions against individuals that are responsible for the restrictions, as well as visa denials and asset freezes, 3) fund programs that assist in the development of curriculum that promotes religious pluralism and excludes hateful or discriminatory attitudes, and 4) fund programs that assist in training local officials in the protection of holy sites or places of worship. 

Additionally, the Commission recommended that Congress 1) hold public hearings on religious freedom, including country-specific hearings and ambassadorial-confirmation hearings, 2) meet with relevant communities, advocates, and prisoners during delegation trips to CPCs to examine and assess religious freedom restrictions, and 3) advocate for prisoners of conscience and those who experience persecution on account of their religion. 


Since its inception, USCIRF has been an advocate for religious freedoms around the world. Its research, analysis, and recommendations give guidance to lawmakers on how to advance religious freedom. Religious organizations involved in ministry abroad should be mindful of the concerns cited by the Commission regarding specific CPCs and EPCs and take necessary precautions to provide for staff safety. To read the full report, click here.


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations