In an unprecedented move, a bipartisan US commission tracking global religious freedom has recommended that the State Department name Turkey on its annual list of “countries of particular concern.” It marks the first time a NATO ally has been designated as a nation whose government has engaged in, or tolerated, systematic and egregious violations of the universal right to freedom of religion and belief.

In its annual report released Tuesday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that, despite its status as an electoral democracy, Turkey under Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan has failed to recognize religious communities as independent entities with full legal status. Turkish government officials routinely control and meddle in the internal governance, education, and worship rights of these communities. The commission also calls out Turkey — along with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela – for its promotion and tolerance of anti-Semitism.

“Nations that trample upon the basic right of its citizens to freely practice any religion — or no religion — provide fertile ground for poverty, insecurity, war, terror, and the rise of radical movements and activities,” said commission chairman Leonard Leo. Officials at the Commission describe freedom of religion as, often, “the first freedom threatened by tyranny and terror.”

Four of the panel’s nine commissioners “strongly dissented” from recommending that Turkey be named a country of particular concern. In a dissenting opinion included in the report, they say, “There is nothing in the country’s record that indicates Turkey has regressed in terms of religious freedom in the past year.”

They note that Ankara, in the past year, has begun implementing reforms related to textbooks and educational opportunities for religious minorities, has started returning properties to some religious minority communities, is allowing headscarves to be worn in schools and universities, and is restoring churches.

‘Turkey should be commended for the progress it has made and encouraged to do more. To dwell on the past, as the majority does, without noticing new developing opportunities for advancing religious freedom in Turkey, is counterproductive.’

–Four out of nine dissenting USCIRF commimssioners

“In fact, the record is clear. Turkey should be commended for the progress it has made and encouraged to do more. To dwell on the past, as the majority does, without noticing new developing opportunities for advancing religious freedom in Turkey, is counterproductive. We reject that approach, and remain hopeful.”

Turkey responded to the designation, saying it did not deserve to be on the list and its inclusion called into question the commission’s credibility.

“Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that’s not where Turkey belongs in the USCIRF annual report,” Turkish Ambassador to Washington Namik Tan relayed to the Times of Israel in an email Tuesday. “In its most recent annual report on international religious freedoms, the US Department of State underscored the Turkish Government’s steps to improve religious freedom. In this report, positive statements replaced the previous status of ‘no development.’ The categorization of Turkey as a CPC list country not only damages the credibility and relevance of the USCIRF, but also raises serious questions about the political motivation that drives this exercise.”

Less controversial is the commission’s decision to include Egypt on the list of serious religious freedom violators for the second straight year. Since the ouster of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the situation for religious minorities, especially the ancient Coptic Christian community, has dramatically worsened, according to the Commission. Security forces have turned their guns on Coptic demonstrators and churches, killing dozens of people and wounding hundreds. The new leaders in Cairo are failing to protect the community and display no interest in prosecuting those responsible. On the contrary, Commission says the Egyptian government allows its official media to incite violence against religious minorities and continues to prosecute and sentence citizens charged with blasphemy. Cairo’s promotion and tolerance of anti-Semitism in the public square is also a major problem.

‘Nations that trample upon the basic right of its citizens to freely practice any religion – or no religion – provide fertile ground for poverty, insecurity, war, terror, and the rise of radical movements and activities’

The full list of the commission’s 16 most egregious religious freedom violators comprises: Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

Leo said, “It’s no coincidence that these nations are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth,” emphasizing the relationship between a country’s stability and the way its government allows its citizens to freely practice, change their beliefs, or encourage others to join their religion.

Iran continues to be a serial abuser of human rights and among the world’s worst religious freedom violators, according to the report. Iran is a constitutional, theocratic republic that continues to detain, torture, and execute citizens based primarily or entirely upon their religion. In the past year, Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims have faced intensified attacks, harassment, detention, and imprisonment. Iranian dissidents and human rights defenders are subject to routine abuse and have even been executed for the capital crime of “waging war against God.”

The Commission notes the suffering of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China; the brutal assaults endured by Christians in Egypt, Iran, Sudan, and Nigeria; and the Muslim suffering in non-Muslim countries like Russia and Belarus as well as under Muslim governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It also singles out the promotion of anti-Semitic bigotry in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Turkey.

‘It’s no coincidence that these nations are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth’

The bipartisan commission, which uses the universal standards of the 1948 United Declaration of Human Rights as its yardstick to measure global religious freedom, is urging the US government to recognize the link between religious oppression and global security and weave it into America’s national security and foreign policy decision making.