Lankford Continues to Prioritize the Need to Protect Religious Liberty

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) offered the following statement in response to the release of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) annual report, which includes the Commission’s recommendations to the State Department for the designation of Countries of Particular Concern, which is required to be issued annually by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, and recommendations for its Special Watch List: 

“Religious freedom remains a challenge around the world, and the US must remain committed to ensuring people everywhere can enjoy the basic right to freely live and practice the faith of their choosing or have no faith at all,” said Lankford. “We’ve taken important steps toward ending blasphemy laws, protecting Uyghurs, and combating anti-Semitism around the world, but work remains. The Trump Administration made tremendous strides in our work to promote and defend religious freedom abroad. I join USCIRF in urging President Biden to continue this work and prioritize religious freedom as part of our overall national security strategy. We have an obligation as Americans to call attention to religious persecution wherever it occurs and help find solutions for people who want to freely live their faith.”

The USCIRF annual report continues to recommend re-designations for Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern and adds India, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam as recommended designations. It also recommends the State Department maintain Cuba and Nicaragua on the Special Watch List in addition to adding Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan to the list. Notably, USCIRF removed Bahrain, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Sudan from the Watch List because the countries did not meet the high threshold for 2020, which suggests some improvements in religious freedom in those nations, though concerns remain going forward.

Last year, Lankford led a bipartisan letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to ask them to consider USCIRF’s recommendations when determining designations for Countries of Particular Concern and placement on the Special Watch List. 

Lankford continues to work in a bipartisan manner toward the goal of advancing religious liberty at home and abroad. In March, Lankford joined Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) to introduce a bipartisan resolution to establish a Senate Human Rights Commission, modeled after the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US House of Representatives. If passed, the resolution would create a bipartisan commission to examine human rights violations through regular briefings and events and promote human rights initiatives in the Senate. The USCIRF annual report called for passage of this important resolution.

Lankford praised the State Department’s 2019 report, which highlighted several examples of positive steps taken internationally to ensure religious freedom for all people of faith around the world. Lankford also spoke on the Senate floor in support of the ongoing work of the US to advance international religious freedom through Ministerials to Advance Religious Freedom. He also supported President Trump’s Executive Order to Advance International Religious Freedom. Both the Ministerials and the Executive Order were highlighted by USCIRF in its report.

Lankford and Coons previously introduced a resolution to call for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy laws. The resolution passed the Senate unanimously last Congress, and a similar resolution passed in the House by a vote of 386-3. Blasphemy laws affect Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Bahá’í, secularists, and many other groups. USCIRF research has found that blasphemy charges are often based on false accusations, are used for sectarian or political purposes, and foster religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. They found that at least 41 countries enforced blasphemy laws between 2014 and 2018. Lankford provided opening remarks at the USCIRF virtual hearing late last year entitled, “Blasphemy Laws and the Violation of International Religious Freedom,” about findings from USCIRF’s report on the enforcement of global blasphemy laws and the ways they promote violence against minority religious communities. 

This year’s USCIRF report also highlighted necessary ongoing support for Uyghur Muslims, as they face religious persecution by the Chinese Communist Party. Lankford joined Senator Marco Rubio to introduce a bill that will ensure that goods made with Uyghur forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) do not enter the US. Earlier this year, the State Department issued a determination that the Chinese Communist Party is committing crimes against humanity and genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

In 2019, Lankford and Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) launched the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism. The Task Force now has nearly 50 Senators, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.