US adds Cuba, Nicaragua, Wagner Group to religious freedom blacklist
Nicaraguans demonstrate in front of the cathedral in neighboring Costa Rica’s capital San Jose in August 2022 against the Nicaraguan government’s detention of outspoken bishop Rolando Alvarez – Copyright ANP/AFP REMKO DE WAAL
The United States on Friday added Cuba, Nicaragua and Russia’s Wagner mercenary group to a blacklist on international religious freedom, opening the path to potential sanctions.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Wagner Group was being designated due to involvement in abuses in the Central African Republic, where nearly a decade of bloodshed has had religious overtones.
Violations of religious freedom “sow division, undermine economic security and threaten political stability and peace,” Blinken said in a statement.
“The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”
Cuba and Nicaragua were both newly designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” under the annual determinations, meaning that the two leftist Latin American states — already under US sanctions — could face further measures.
Blinken kept on the blacklist all Countries of Particular Concern from 2021 — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Nicaragua’s increasingly authoritarian president, Daniel Ortega, has clamped down on the Catholic Church since accusing it of supporting 2018 anti-government protests, which were crushed at the cost of hundreds of lives.
A bishop critical of the government, Rolando Alvarez, was put under house arrest in August with other priests and seminarians arrested on unspecified charges.
After Pope Francis called for dialogue in September, Ortega branded the church a “dictatorship.”
The designation of Cuba is the latest sign of pressure on the island by the administration of President Joe Biden, which has largely shunned previous Democratic president Barack Obama’s policy of seeking an opening with the longtime US nemesis.
In its latest annual report on religious freedom issued in June, the State Department said there was growing harassment of Christians in Cuba, pointing to violence and arrests of religious figures over purported roles in rare public protests.
– No action on India, warning to Vietnam –
As expected, Blinken took no action against India, seen by the United States as a key emerging ally.
The decision ignores a recommendation by the autonomous US Commission on International Religious Freedom which said that treatment of minorities was “significantly” worsening under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.
India had already voiced anger over the State Department’s annual report on religious freedom, which documented incendiary comments by Indian officials and accounts of discrimination against Muslims and Christians.
The report had separately pointed to abuses of Russia’s Wagner Group in Central African Republic, citing Amnesty International in linking the mercenaries to killings and sexual violence against Muslims.
The designation comes as the United States reportedly considers a terrorist designation of the Wagner Group, which has also been involved in Mali and has been accused of rights violations in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
The Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries, was plunged into civil war in 2013 when a Muslim-dominated rebellion overthrew the president, sparking reprisals from predominantly Christian and animist militias.
Blinken added the Central African Republic to a watchlist, meaning that it will be designated among Countries of Particular Concern without progress.
Also newly put on the watchlist was Vietnam. The State Department report said the communist authorities have harassed non-recognized religious groups including Christian house churches, independent Buddhists and members of the century-old Cao Dai movement.
Rights activists have long pushed the United States to designate Vietnam over the communist government’s treatment of Buddhist and other religious groups but successive US administrations have been building ties with the former US adversary.
Algeria and Comoros remained on the watchlist from 2021.