US adds Wagner mercenaries to blacklist for religious persecution

The US State Department says it “will not stand by” crackdowns on religious freedoms.

The United States has added Latin American opponents Cuba and Nicaragua and Russia’s Wagner Group to an international religious freedom blacklist, paving the way for possible sanctions.

“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, imprison and even kill individuals for their beliefs,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Friday.

“The United States will not stand by these abuses.”

The Wagner Group was listed for alleged involvement in abuses in the Central African Republic, where nearly 10 years of bloodshed has had religious overtones.

The Russian mercenary group has also been involved in Mali and is accused of rights violations in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

Cuba and Nicaragua were both recently designated “countries of particular concern” under the annual determinations, meaning the two left-led states — already under US sanctions — could face further action.

Nicaragua’s increasingly authoritarian President Daniel Ortega has cracked down on the Catholic Church since accusing it of supporting anti-government protests in 2018, which were crushed at the cost of hundreds of lives.

Cuba’s designation is the latest sign of pressure on the island from the administration of President Joe Biden, which has largely shunned previous Democratic President Barack Obama’s attempt to seek an opening with the lifelong American nemesis.

In its most recent annual report on religious freedom released in June, the State Department pointed to violence and arrests of Cuban religious figures for alleged roles in rare public protests, as well as restrictions on unrecognized Protestant churches.

“These actions represented a shift toward participating in and tolerating systematic, ongoing egregious violations of religious freedom, which is the basis for the designation,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez rejected the US blacklist, calling it “arbitrary” and “unfair”.

“It is known that there is freedom of religion in Cuba,” Rodriguez tweeted.

From 2021, Blinken kept all countries of special concern on the blacklist: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

No action against emerging allies

As expected, no action was taken against India, which the United States sees as a key emerging ally.

The decision ignores a recommendation from the autonomous US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which said treatment of minorities worsened “significantly” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

The Commission said in a statement it was “outraged” that Blinken did not list India or Nigeria, despite the State Department’s own reporting showing “serious violations of religious freedom” in both countries.

India had already expressed anger at the State Department’s annual report, which documented inflammatory remarks by Indian officials and reports of discrimination against Muslims and Christians.

CAR, Vietnam on watch list

Blinken has added the Central African Republic to a watch list, which means it will be designated as countries of particular concern without progress.

Also newly added to the waiting list was Vietnam, where communist authorities harassed unrecognized religious groups, including Christian house churches, independent Buddhists and members of the centuries-old Cao Dai movement, according to the State Department report.

Algeria and the Comoros remained on the watch list from 2021.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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