Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy

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Updated January 14, 2021
Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy
The State Department’s Role
For decades, U.S. policymakers have sought to promote
The State Department leads the federal government’s
religious freedom abroad, reflecting both support for human
efforts to promote international religious freedom. The
rights in U.S. foreign policy as well as the particular
AAL for IRF heads the Office on International Religious
emphasis on freedom of religion in U.S. domestic law and
Freedom (IRF Office). Per IRFA, the AAL integrates IRF
political culture. Protection of religious freedom is also
policies into U.S. foreign policy efforts and is to participate
affirmed in international law through the United Nations
in any interagency processes in which the promotion of IRF
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International
“can advance United States national security interests.” The
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other
AAL and the IRF Office lead the drafting of the annual
instruments. Congress has been an advocate for
international religious freedom report and advise the
international religious freedom issues and has sought to
Secretary of State on U.S. policy actions in response to
ensure continued support for religious freedom as a focus of
religious freedom violations. Sam Brownback, confirmed
U.S. foreign policy, most prominently through passage of
by the Senate in January 2018, serves as the current AAL.
the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
Other senior State Department positions related to religious
Legislative Background
freedom include the congressionally mandated position of
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L.
Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-
105-292) is the foundational legislation for U.S.
Semitism (currently held by Elan S. Carr), and the Special
international religious freedom (IRF) policy. Recognizing
Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and
religious freedom as a “universal human right,” IRFA
South/Central Asia (currently vacant).
created various government mechanisms aimed at
In June 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the
cementing IRF as a foreign policy priority of the United
State Department was elevating the IRF Office and the
States. Most significantly, the law
Office of the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating
 created an Office on International Religious Freedom
anti-Semitism by designating that these offices report
within the State Department headed by an Ambassador
directly to the Under Secretary of State for Civilian
at Large (AAL) for IRF;
Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The offices had

previously been situated within the Bureau of Democracy,
required that the Secretary of State issue an annual
Human Rights, and Labor. Pursuant to IRFA, the AAL for
report on the status of religious freedom around the
IRF continues to report to the Secretary of State.
International Religious Freedom
 mandated that the President identify “countries of
particular concern” (CPCs) and prescribed punitive
The IRF report, which is statutorily required by May 1 each
actions in response to violations of religious freedom,
year, covers developments in each foreign country during
subject to presidential waiver authority;
the prior calendar year and includes information on the
 created the independent U.S. Commission on
status of religious freedom, violations of religious freedom,
International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); and
and relevant U.S. policies. The IRF report is the official

U.S. government account of religious freedom conditions
amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to
abroad, and is a primary information source for the
make inadmissible into the United States foreign
Secretary of State’s “country of particular concern”
government officials who have committed particularly
designations. The report covering calendar year 2019 was
severe religious freedom violations.
submitted to Congress on June 10, 2020, and is available on
Congress has subsequently strengthened IRFA via
the Department of State website.
amendment, notably through the Frank R. Wolf
Countries (and Entities) of Particular
International Religious Freedom Act (Wolf IRFA; P.L.
114-281), which became law in December 2016. The major
IRFA mandates that the President, using information from
provisions of the law
the IRF report and other sources, designate “particularly
 called for the AAL for IRF to have a greater role within
severe” religious freedom violators as “countries of
interagency policy processes and to report directly to the
particular concern” (CPCs) (see Figure 1). The law defines
Secretary of State;
particularly severe violations as those that are systematic,

ongoing, and egregious. The Wolf IRFA mandated an
mandated designation of a “special watch list” of
additional “special watch list” of countries with severe
countries with severe violations of religious freedom but
religious freedom violations but that do not reach the
that did not meet CPC criteria; and
threshold of systematic, ongoing, and egregious. In
 mandated designation of nonstate entities of particular
recognition of religious freedom abuses carried out by the
concern (EPCs).
Islamic State and other nonstate actors, Wolf IRFA also

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Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy
added a new requirement that the President designate
Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, the
entities of particular concern (EPCs) and, “when
Islamic State, Islamic State-Greater Sahara, Islamic State-
practicable,” take actions to address severe violations of
West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, and the
religious freedom committed by EPCs.
Figure 1. Countries Most Often Designated as CPCs
Executive Order (E.O.) on IRF
By Number of Times on CPC List (out of 16 lists since 1999)
On June 2, 2020, President Trump issued E.O. 13926,
which declares IRF to be a “moral and national
security imperative” and directed the State
Department and the U.S. Agency for International
Development to prioritize IRF in foreign policy and
foreign assistance. Regarding CPCs, EPCs, special
watch list countries, and any other countries that have
engaged in or tolerated violations of religious
freedom, the E.O. directed that the relevant U.S.
Chiefs of Mission develop action plans to support IRF
in these countries, among other directives.
U.S. Commission on International
Religious Freedom (USCIRF)

IRFA established USCIRF, an independent federal
Source: Compiled by CRS based on U.S. State Department releases.
commission tasked with monitoring IRF conditions,
Actions in Response to Religious
reviewing U.S. government policy, and making policy
Freedom Violations
recommendations. The President and House and Senate
leadership appoint USCIRF commissioners, and IRFA’s
IRFA prescribes a list of U.S. government actions that may
provisions ensure its composition reflects recommendations
be exercised in response to religious freedom violations.
of both the majority and minority party. Commissioners are
Permitted actions include diplomatic measures such as
appointed to one-year or two-year terms and are to be
demarches and public condemnations. For CPC countries,
composed of distinguished individuals in fields relevant to
sanctions of varying severity are suggested, including
religious freedom. The AAL for IRF also serves as a
suspension of foreign assistance, trade restrictions, or loan
nonvoting member. USCIRF in June 2020 elected Gayle
prohibitions. However, the law provides the executive
Manchin as USCIRF’s Chair for 2020-2021. Division J,
branch significant discretion in determining which, if any,
Title VII of P.L. 116-94 reauthorized USCIRF through
punitive actions to take. Administrations can apply
September 2022 and amended some of USCIRF’s
“commensurate substitute action” in lieu of IRFA’s
statutorily required duties and personnel matters.
suggested measures, exempt a country from new sanctions
by referring to already existing human rights-related
Pursuant to IRFA, USCIRF produces its own annual report,
sanctions against that country, or waive sanctions by citing
which it has utilized to analyze the executive branch’s
U.S. national interest. In practice, Administrations have
implementation of IRFA during the preceding year, make
generally either referred to sanctions already in place
general policy recommendations, and recommend CPC,
against CPC countries or issued waivers instead of
special watch list, and EPC designations. USCIRF’s
implementing new sanctions under IRFA. The most recent
recommendations for designations are typically more
CPC designations and accompanying government actions
expansive than the official designations by the State
were determined in December 2020 (see Table 1).
Department. The joint explanatory statement for the
FY2021 State Department, Foreign Operations, and Related
Table 1. CPCs and U.S. Actions (Dec. 2020)
Programs Appropriations Act (Division K of P.L. 116-260)
directed that the Secretary of State inform the House and
Burma (Myanmar)
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Senate Appropriations and Foreign Affairs/Foreign
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Relations Committees “of the rationale if the USCIRF
Referred to preexisting sanctions
recommends the designation of a country as a [CPC] in its
Referred to preexisting sanctions
annual report, and the Department of State does not
Issued national interest waiver
designate such country within 30 days of such a decision.”
North Korea
Referred to preexisting sanctions
Issued national interest waiver
In its report covering calendar year 2019 (released in April
Saudi Arabia
Issued national interest waiver
2020), USCIRF recommended that five countries be added
Issued national interest waiver
to the official CPC list in addition to those already on it:
Issued national interest waiver
India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam (as indicated in
Source: 86 Federal Register 2718.
Table 1, the State Department subsequently designated
Nigeria as a CPC). USCIRF similarly recommended that
In addition, the State Department placed Comoros, Cuba,
additional countries be added to the special watch list, and
Nicaragua, and Russia on the special watch list. Sudan and
that an additional entity be added to the EPC list.
Uzbekistan were removed from their prior listing as special
watch list countries “based on significant, concrete progress
Michael A. Weber, Analyst in Foreign Affairs
undertaken by their respective governments over the past
year.” EPC designations included al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda,

Global Human Rights: International Religious Freedom Policy

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