The bodies of Nigerian farm workers slain in a suspected Boko Haram terrorist attack await burial in late November. Photo by EPA-EFE
Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The Trump administration has added Nigeria to a list of the world's worst violators of religious freedom, opening up the African nation to punitive measures.
The State Department designated Nigeria for the first time as a Country of Particular Concern on Monday under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for engaging in or tolerating "systematic, ongoing egregious violations of religious freedom."
Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were all re-designated as CPC, the State Department said.
Nations designated as a CPC become punishable by U.S. sanctions, including the suspension of foreign aid, trade restrictions or loan prohibitions though the law allows the executive branch the power to determine which if any restrictions to apply.
"The U.S. is unwavering in its commitment to religious freedom," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday in a tweet. "No country or entity should be allowed to persecute people with impunity because of their beliefs. These annual designations show that when religious freedom is attacked, we will act."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it welcomed the addition of Nigeria to the CPC list.
"Nigeria is the first secular democracy that has been named a CPC, which demonstrates that we must be vigilant that all forms of governments respect religious freedom," USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin said in a statement.
The USCIRF had recommended in April for Nigeria to be added to the list due to state- and societally perpetrated violations against religious freedom.
The spring report said the government of Nigeria continued to detain the leader of its largest Shiite Muslim minority group and had violently cracked down on its members during religious processions and protests after banning the group for stating it was violent and annoying to society.
The country has also experienced security issues caused by terrorist organizations, including Boko Haram, which as recently as last month has been suspected of killing more than a 100 Nigerian farms in a terrorist attack.
"The widespread security issues of inter-communal and militia violence, rampant kidnapping and general criminality also negatively impacted religious freedom," USCIRF's annual report that recommended Nigeria be designated as a CPC said. "There were multiple reports of criminal attacks on religious and traditional leaders' houses of worship."
The commission had also recommended India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam in the report to be designated though the State Department did not add them to the list.
Russia along with Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua were added the the Special Watch List for committing severe violations against religious freedom while Sudan and Uzbekistan have been removed from the watch list due to progress undertaken by their governments, Pompeo said.
"Their courageous reforms of their laws and practices stand as models for other nations to follow," he said.
The USCIRF had recommended both Sudan and Uzbekistan remain on the list but the commission's vice chair, Tony Perkins, said their removal was understandable given "the historic progress that has been made in these two countries."
"We hope that their progress encourages positive change in other places around the world," Perkins said.
Pompeo said they have also not renewed Entity of Particular Concern designations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State-Khorasan as they have both lost all territory they formerly held.
"While these two groups no longer meet the statutory criteria for designation, we will not rest until we have fully eliminated the threat or religious freedom abuses by any violent extremist and terrorist groups," the United States' top diplomat said.