Welcome to this week’s edition of the Middle East File. 

Two weeks ago, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released its 2022 Annual Report. The report documents religious freedom conditions in dozens of countries and makes recommendations to the US government on steps it should take to advance religious freedom. As my RFI colleague Lena Abboud argues, US support of global religious freedom must go beyond rhetoric to concrete actions, which too often is missing in religious freedom policy.

The release of the 2022 USCIRF Annual Report is also the subject of the first episode of our newly launched Middle East File podcast. In episode one, Nadine Maenza, who just completed her second term on the commission joined me to discuss the report, its recommendations, and lessons learned during her time at the commission.  

The second topic in this week’s Middle East File is an article from Miles Windsor. The Easter celebrations of the Coptic Orthodox Church provide an occasion to consider the paradoxical realities facing the largest Christian community in the Middle East. 

The third article, by Dennis Petri in the Review of Faith and International Affairs, dissects the tyranny of religious freedom rankings. He looks at some of the religious freedom datasets, including from the Pew Research Center, the Religion and State Dataset, and the Worldwatch List, to consider what those rankings tell us and what they do not. While the rankings themselves may be interesting, and headline-grabbing, the data behind the ranking is far more illuminating. Petri contributes important insights into the ongoing discussion (see the related articles) about the need for credible, granular data that informs better policy and programmatic responses to advance religious freedom. 

The final article looks at Iraq and a sober reflection provided by Emma Sky from a recent “tour through Iraq’s side streets.” Reflecting on travels in Mosul, Ramadi, Baghdad, and beyond, Sky sees reasons for continued concern and signs of optimism. The challenges are immense, including political, security, economic, ecological, and more. Yet there are also positive developments, particularly championed by “a new generation that has no connection to the Saddam era, that rejects Islamism in all its forms, and that embraces diversity and civic discourse. This generation is not hostile to the West – despite the bitter memory of occupation. It is rooted in an era when Iraqis were not defined by their sect or ethnicity. It is consciously cultivated by interventions, not to divide the citizens, but to create a shared public space.” 

Working in partnership with those who share a vision like that is at the heart of much of our work at RFI. The challenges are substantial, yet as seen even in the articles highlighted here, there are reasons for hope.

As mentioned above, we're excited to launch the Middle East File podcast. We already have a number of great episodes lined up so be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform (incl. Apple Podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, and Amazon). 

Visit the Middle East Action Team page to find more resources and follow us on Twitter.

Jeremy P. Barker
Director, Middle East Action Team
Religious Freedom Institute 
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US support of global religious freedom must go beyond rhetoric by Lena Abboud (The Hill)

Religious freedom is regressing globally, and the United States has an opportunity to be in solidarity with the people most egregiously affected. But whether this solidarity goes beyond rhetoric depends on actions the United States takes against perpetrators and its engagement with governments and communities in countries where this freedom is most at risk.  

On Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published its annual report recommending that the secretary of State designate 15 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) and include 12 countries on the special watch list (SWL).  

A CPC designation indicates a government has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom, which the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 defines as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion.”  

Governments that “engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom” but do not meet all CPC criteria are included on the special watch list. While USCIRF makes designation recommendations, the secretary of State makes formal CPC and SWL determinations.  


A CPC or SWL designation, after all, is neither a symbolic gesture nor a final condemnation of a country. Rather, it is to be the basis for deliberate and effective engagement to safeguard religious freedom in countries where this right is most at risk.  
Why it Matters: Each year the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) releases its annual religious freedom report including assessments of religious freedom conditions and recommendations for US policy. What arises from those recommendations? Is it merely rhetoric or is there more being done? Can something more be done? 

Securing Peace For Egypt’s Christians At Coptic Eastertide by Miles P.J. Windsor (Religion Unplugged)

This year, Egyptian Christians attended their churches and cathedrals boldly, in spite of the looming threat posed to such a basic exercise of religious freedom. Many of the most prominent churches and cathedrals had armed guards in case of an attack by Islamic extremists. This line of defense is not new, and when there have been attacks, it only goes so far in mitigating the loss of life. 


However, along with that spirit of boldness and culture of faith, it would be understandable if there was some apprehension as Egyptian Christians contemplated their gatherings as congregations this past Easter. It marked the fifth anniversary of the twin suicide bombings that targeted St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Palm Sunday 2017. More than 70 were killed in those attacks. 

During this month alone, a Coptic priest, Father Arsanios Wadeed, was stabbed to death in Alexandria while taking his youth group on an outing. Father Wadeed had endured violent threats at various points in his ministry. Also this month, a Christian woman was kidnapped and forced by her abductors to change her religion to Islam and to make public her forced conversion on social media. Amid public outrage, authorities were able to secure her release and return to her family just over a week after her kidnapping, a welcome but far too infrequent outcome for incidents such as this. 

Egypt is a country of contrasts when it comes to all kinds of human rights, including religious freedom. In spite of the recent acts of savage inhumanity, many Christians would argue that it’s the most free and peaceful time they’ve known. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi presents himself as a defender of the Christian community, which represents about 10% of the population. He has made some surprising statements under no apparent pressure to do so. In October last year, he said, “If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose.’” It’s hard to overemphasize the power and controversy of such a statement. 

Why it Matters: Easter celebrations for Christians in Egypt highlight the paradoxes that mark the present situation for not only Christians but Egyptians of all religious backgrounds. 



The Tyranny of Religious Freedom Rankings by Dennis Petri (Review of Faith and International Affairs)

In 2006, Grim and Finke lamented that “religion receives little attention in international quantitative studies. Including religion in cross-national studies requires data, and high-quality data are in short supply” (Grim and Finke 2006, 3). Today, this is less of a problem, as increasing amounts of crosscountry data on religion have become available (Fox 2011). Katherine Marshall’s (2021) comprehensive working paper “Towards Enriching Understandings and Assessments of Freedom of Religion or Belief: Politics, Debates, Methodologies, and Practices” discusses 31 different instruments, of which the Global Restrictions on Religion of the Pew Research Center, the Religion and State Project at Bar-Ilan University, and the World Watch List of Open Doors are among the most popular.


Yet, notwithstanding the benefits of religious freedom datasets, essential aspects of the vulnerability of religious minorities continue to be overlooked or underweighted because of a combination of conceptual and methodological reasons. In this essay, I discuss three areas where I’ve identified problems with religious freedom datasets and how they are used by academics and policymakers. I will make references to some real-life examples taken from my work as a consultant to various civil society organizations and international institutions over the last 15 years, primarily in Latin America but also in Africa and the Middle East. My aim is not to dismiss religious freedom datasets, which certainly have their place, but to explore how they can be improved and how they should be used by policymakers. To achieve this, I include practical recommendations in my discussion.

Why it Matters: While there is a growing amount of data on religious freedom around the world, it is critical to understand what that data does and does not show. While rankings provide a compelling way of presenting information, they also risk obscuring details or presenting themselves to be overly precise. For all those concerned in understanding the realities of religious freedom around the world, it is important to understand what is known and how it is known. 



A tour through Iraq's side streets, seeking the country's path to peace by Emma Sky (The National)

On a visit to Mosul last month, I was stunned at the state of the Old City five years after its liberation from ISIS. [...] UNESCO estimates that 80 per cent of the Old City was destroyed. It has begun rehabilitating cultural heritage to “revive the spirit of Mosul”, financed largely by the UAE and the EU. 


In contrast with Mosul, Ramadi has little cultural heritage to boast of. It is known in western imagination only as a byword for resistance to US forces – and as the seat of the Anbar Awakening, the Sunni resistance that turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq. It, too, had been devastated in the fight against ISIS. But Anbar is now one of the most stable regions in the country. In Ramadi, there is no visible presence of Shiite militias – nor their posters. Displaced Anbaris have returned to their homes. And there is a construction boom.


My visit to Iraq left me pondering why the trajectories of Mosul and Ramadi are so different – and what the future of the country might hold. In Christopher Blattman’s Why we fight: the roots of war and the path to peace, I found a fresh lens through which to analyse the country. From extensive research around the globe, and drawing on the work of economists, political scientists, psychologists and sociologists, Blattman shows that war is the exception not the rule – that even the bitterest rivals prefer peace because war is so ruinous. It was a reminder that, through the centuries, Iraqis have mostly lived peacefully together.


Regardless of the political paralysis in Baghdad, civil society has firmly taken root in Iraq. This development can be credited to a new generation that has no connection to the Saddam era, that rejects Islamism in all its forms, and that embraces diversity and civic discourse. This generation is not hostile to the West – despite the bitter memory of occupation. It is rooted in an era when Iraqis were not defined by their sect or ethnicity. It is consciously cultivated by interventions, not to divide the citizens, but to create a shared public space.

As Blattman's book reveals, the path to peace is piecemeal. “It’s winding, often hard to find, full of obstacles." In the case of Iraq, as I discovered during my trip, it is undoubtedly there.

Why it Matters: A reflection from across Iraq, including Mosul, Ramadi, and Baghdad, highlights some of the enduring challenges facing the country: political, economic, ecological, and more. Yet, it also points to some positive developments that against odds might be emerging. 

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