International (MNN) — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its recommendations for the annual list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs).
This year's list includes 13 nations: Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Iraq and Nigeria joined the list recently — Iraq in December and Nigeria this month.
Now it is up to Congress, the president, and the state department to act on the concerns detailed by the commission, said Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs.
"It now sort of transfers over to those bodies to actually put the teeth into this and actually designate…who is a country of particular concern and who isn't," Nettleton explained.
Those branches of the government also have the power to pressure the countries on the list to change their ways.
"The bill which created the Commission on International Religious Freedom actually gives a lot of leeway, and all the way up to the president setting trade embargoes, setting other penalties against these countries," Nettleton explained.
This year, the United States has a new presidential administration, which has an opportunity to handle the issue differently than its predecessors.
"In the past, the president has been…hesitant to use the sticks, and instead, has tried to use the carrots," Nettleton explained. "Now if the state department or the president really chose to put some teeth behind this and chose to explore some of the things that the bill allows them to do, it would be interesting to see if the countries would respond more proactively to this designation and to the issue of religious freedom within their countries."
Some countries on the list do respond to the censure and work to get off the list.
"It's interesting to see how these countries respond," Nettleton said. "Vietnam has made some public statements and some public actions that have been a real effort to get off of this list. They offered registration to some church groups; they did some things to say, 'Hey, look at what we're doing; we're not a country of particular concern.'"
Other CPCs ignore international criticism of their behavior. China, Iran, and Eritrea have not given any indication that they care about getting off the list.
"They've thumbed their nose at this process as if to say, 'You know what? That's our business, not yours, and we don't care what you say," Nettleton said
The Commission also released a Watch List of countries that are not yet CPCs, but whose treatment of religious minorities deserves monitoring by the international community. This year, those countries include Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey and Venezuela.
The position of Afghanistan on the Watch List surprised Nettleton, who thought that perhaps it should have gone on the CPC list.
"I would have thought that Afghanistan–a country where there are no church buildings existing for Afghan believers to go in and worship– I would have thought that would have been very high on the list, instead of simply 'let's keep an eye on it,'" he said.
The Commission's list generally confirms what VOM sees as it works on the ground to help persecuted Christians in the most oppressive countries. But Nettleton said the list also emphasizes religious liberty as an important priority for the United States.
"We definitely appreciate the fact that the United States government has said, 'Religious freedom is such an important issue that we want a report every year on how it's going around the world; we want to be able to respond and try to have an effect to create more religious freedom,'" said Nettleton.