USCIRF defends decision to exclude Iraq and Egypt from list of 'Countries of Particular Concern'

(Reuters/Alaa Al-Marjani)Displaced Iraqi people flee their homes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in western of Mosul, Iraq May 17, 2017.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has defended its decision to leave out Iraq and Egypt from the list of "countries of particular concern" for religious freedom violations in its annual report released last month.

Iraq and Egypt have been designated as countries of particular concern (CPC) in the past, but this year, both countries have been added to the list of Tier 2 countries, which identifies nations with religious freedom issues but government actions or inactions are not serious enough to be included in the CPC list.

Religious freedom advocates have raised concerns about excluding the two countries from the report since the Islamic State has committed genocide in Iraq and a number of churches in Egypt have been targeted in terrorist attacks in recent months.

In late April, evangelical author and religious freedom advocate Johnnie Moore described USCIRF's decision to designate Iraq and Egypt as a Tier 2 country as "delusional."

During a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, the commissioners justified taking Iraq and Egypt off the CPC list.

Commissioner Sandra Jolley, a longtime religious freedom advocate who was appointed to the commission in 2016, said that it was a "tough decision" to exclude Egypt from the list.

The report was released just weeks after the Coptic Churches were bombed on Palm Sunday, but Jolley noted that the reporting period for the 2017 report was from February 2016 to February 2017, before the Palm Sunday bombings happened.

"Issues of religious freedom are a subset of the larger issue of human rights. It is entirely possible that a country can be moving forward in addressing issues of religious freedom and at the same time, be extremely problematic in terms of other human rights abuses. This is the situation that we found in Egypt," Jolley said, according to The Christian Post.

"[President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi's government has made very public and very symbolic gestures of engagement, particularly with the Coptic Church," she continued.

Jolley was part of a USCIRF delegation that met with Egyptian Coptic leaders earlier this year. She contended that based on the documents and her experience in Egypt, the country does not fit the International Religious Freedom Act's definition of CPC.

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress last year had created a new designation highlighting "entities of particular concern" (EPC), which allows USCIRF to formally identify non-state actors and terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Shabaab.

USCIRF Vice Chair Daniel Mark, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, said that the new designation had played a role in the commission's decision not to include Iraq in the CPC list.

He said that he was one of the people who asked Congress to create the new category because the CPC designation did not allow the commission to highlight groups that violate religious freedom.

"I think that had we not been able to say ISIS is an EPC, it would have been much harder for us to take [Iraq] down," Mark said, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of the other members of the commission.

Commissioner Clifford May, the founder of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the decision to take Iraq off the CPC list was based on the "belief" that the Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities "recognize the problem and are attempting in a serious way to address it." He further noted that the commission will be re-examining the Iraqi government for the 2018 report.

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