USCIRF Issues Annual International Religious Freedom Report With a Peculiar Omission

Last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its annual report documenting human rights violations globally. The report suffers from at least one peculiar omission. It left out prior analysis depicting persistent religious freedom abuses in Western Europe. And, by doing so, USCIRF -- perhaps inadvertently -- diminished the suffering of European Muslims, Jews and Christians, rendering them vulnerable to further attack.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory group that examines religious freedom around the world. Its functions, pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, includes issuing an annual report documenting abuses and setting forth policy recommendations to high-level government officials, including the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. NGOs, academics and other policy makers also rely on USCIRF's findings to further bolster human rights claims.

Past USCIRF reports have mentioned anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bias in parts of Europe. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, however, USCIRF devoted meaningful analysis to persistent religious freedom violations -- official restrictions as well as social hostilities -- in Western Europe.

Representative is USCIRF's 2012 report examining official restrictions on certain forms of Muslim religious dress including laws banning the full-face veil in France and Belgium and similar legislative initiatives in Italy and Switzerland.

In 2013, that discussion also encompassed attention to official impediments to mosque and minaret construction projects, bans against ritual slaughter practices and challenges confronting ritual circumcision of male children.

In 2014, USCIRF expressed its concern that "that these restrictions are creating a hostile atmosphere against certain forms of religious activity in Western Europe, as well as limiting social integration and educational and employment opportunities for the affected individuals."

In addition to identifying such discriminatory measures, recent USCIRF reports have also detailed government monitoring of disfavored religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, a Baptist Bible college and several Evangelical Christian churches.

So, it is peculiar that last week's USCIRF report omits all such analysis notwithstanding the absence of positive change last year. Official restrictions persist and in a number of countries, so do social hostilities.

Since October 2014, for instance, Germany has experienced xenophobic and anti-Muslim marches led by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) attracting as many as 25,000 supporters.

In December 2014, a number of Swedish mosques were targeted in a series of highly publicized hate crimes. The violence has resulted in more than half a dozen Swedish Muslims sustaining injuries and with at least one person in critical condition.

Since 2013, religiously motivated hate crimes have been on the rise in the U.K. with a 49 percent increase. In 2013, there were 193 anti-Muslim hate crimes reported, including a murder and 10 attacks against mosques. According to research from the Association of Chief Police Officers, 50 percent to 60 percent of all reported hate crimes are perpetrated against Muslims. Muslim women have frequently become the targets.

Hate crimes are also a problem in the Netherlands, where more than one-third of the 475 mosques have experienced vandalism, attempted arson or the placement of pigs' heads. The attacks are frequently triggered by national or international events and are certain to have a chilling effect on the free exercise of religion because people may be too scared to attend a mosque.

To make matters worse, law enforcement agents commonly register such incidents as "insults" or "destruction of property," as opposed to a religiously motivated bias crime. This trend highlights the necessity of appropriate protocols, regulations and training.

Still, European Muslims are not alone in their struggle for enhanced religious freedom.

According to the Council of Jewish Institutions of France, for example, anti-Semitic acts doubled in 2014, with 851 registered incidents. In the U.K. the Community Security Trust reported 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents, almost double those recorded in 2013. The acts include physical assaults, property damage, threats, verbal abuse and anti-Semitic graffiti on non-Jewish property.

In Belgium, a Jewish woman was refused service in a shop while another was refused medical service. In May 2014, four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. And, last November, an Orthodox Jewish man was stabbed while crossing the street.

Further, as tragic events continued to unfold in the Middle East last summer, attacks against European Jews and synagogues escalated as well. In the U.K., for instance, there were 100 reported anti-Semitic incidents last July, alone. Roman shops were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti and a German synagogue was firebombed.

Notably, flawed data collection by officials characterizes both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate crimes. They also suffer from ineffective investigations and prosecutions.

Interestingly, the religious freedom challenges confronting members of minority Christian groups, such as government surveillance, persist as well.

One of the most significant aspects to international human rights standards is its universality. The international community designed them to protect all people, in all places, at virtually all times. As set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, that universality extends to freedom of religion or belief -- a fundamental human right.

USCIRF's omission is, at best, peculiar.