WASHINGTON (BP)—Two federal government actions shortly before Christmas are vital to protecting international religious liberty, a Southern Baptist public-policy leader said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Dec. 20 the re-designation of Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved under federal law for governments that have committed or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

On the same day as Pompeo’s announcement, President Trump signed into law a bill that reauthorized the U.S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel that researches and makes recommendations on religious liberty conditions overseas. The measure—part of a spending bill approved by Congress—reauthorizes the commission through Sept. 30. 2022.

“The State Department’s CPC announcement and Congress’ bipartisan reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are critical first steps for the defense of this fundamental human right,” said Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

“The world is a safer and better place when the freedom to live according to one’s faith is protected,” Wussow told Baptist Press in written comments. “It’s now time for the State Department to use the tools created by the International Religious Freedom Act and apply real sanctions to those around the world who abuse their authority by violating the consciences of vulnerable people.”

Under U.S. law, the president has various means for penalizing countries on the CPC list. However, no new sanctions were announced against the countries on the list.

Existing trade restrictions will be maintained against Burma, China, Eritrea and North Korea, according to the State Department. Travel limitations already in effect for serious human rights abuses will be continued against Iran. Waivers from penalties were again granted to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in the “important national interest” of the U.S., the State Department reported.

The CPC list did not include Sudan, marking the first time the east African country has been absent since the State Department began making the designations in 1999.

The department re-designated the same non-state organizations as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs). The EPCs, all Islamic terrorist groups, are: al-Nusra Front in Syria; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; al-Qaeda; al-Shabab in East Africa; Boko Haram in West Africa; the Houthis in Yemen; Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Taliban.

Sudan was placed on a “special watch list” (SWL) for countries that have engaged in or permitted “severe violations” of religious freedom. Re-designated to the SWL list were Comoros, a group of islands off the east coast of Africa; Russia; and Uzbekistan. New additions to the list were Cuba, Nicaragua and Nigeria.

The State Department moved Sudan to the SWL because of “significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government to address” the religious liberty violations by Omar al-Bashir’s regime, Pompeo said. The military removed al-Bashir from office in April.

“We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience,” Pompeo said in a written statement. “We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions.”

USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said the State Department’s designations “send a strong signal that the U.S. government will not stand for these abuses.”

The commission is “particularly gratified” the State Department acknowledged how severe the violations are in Nigeria and Cuba by placing both countries on the SWL, said Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

In its April annual report, USCIRF had recommended Sudan stay on the CPC list and six other countries be added to the ones already designated: Central African Republic; Nigeria; Russia; Syria; Uzbekistan; and Vietnam.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a leading religious freedom advocate in Congress, said, “(T)he jury is still out as to whether Sudan deserves its upgrade from CPC status.”

Smith also questioned why India and Turkey were not placed on the SWL. India—with a population that is about 80 percent Hindu—”has become especially intolerant toward religious minorities,” and Turkey’s violations include its limitations on the internal workings of the Greek Orthodox Church, he said.

USCIRF—which is made up of nine commissioners selected by the president and congressional leaders—tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.