Nadine Maenza is nearing the end of a two-year term as chair of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and a four-year term as a commissioner. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government agency that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes recommendations to the White House, State Department and Congress.
Nine commissioners are appointed by either the president or congressional leaders of each political party, supported by a non-partisan professional staff. One of those nine is selected to serve as chair of the group, with a one-year term that may be renewed one other time. The State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom serves as an ex officio member of the commission.
Commissioners are not paid for their work but are given a travel budget and a 15- to 20-member staff.
Maenza, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, has served as president of a group called Patriot Voices and on the board of directors for the Institute for Global Engagement.
Although originally controversial when created in 1998, the body has gained more widespread acceptance as it has called out religious extremism practiced by all kinds of people against all kinds of religions worldwide — not just religious freedom for evangelical Christians as some had feared.
As she approaches the end of her chairmanship next month, Maenza sat down for an exclusive interview with Baptist News Global. The interview happened the day after USCIRF released its annual report, including a list of countries the agency categorizes as Countries of Particular Concern or on a Special Watch List due to religious liberty violations.
The report offers recommendations to the administration, including especially the State Department, which may follow those recommendations or not. For example, last year the USCIRF included Nigeria on its list of Countries of Particular Concern, but the State Department failed to adopt the recommendation.
This year, Nigeria again is included in the alert list alongside recommended additions of Afghanistan, India, Syria and Vietnam. If so designated by the State Department, those countries would join Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Russia on the list of countries whose governments engage in or permit systematic and “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.
Regarding the case against Nigeria, Maenza said: “I’m hopeful that they (the State Department) are taking a look at it again. And because the violence even in 2022, after our reporting period from January to December last year, has continued to be horrific, it should be clear to the State Department that Nigeria (merits designation) as a CPC.”
Here are excerpts from the full interview:
At the annual report event, Sen. Marco Rubio and your colleague Tony Perkins talked about Nigeria as it concerns religious freedom and violations. You also cited as an example the case of Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association in Nigeria, who recently was sentenced to a 24-year prison term by a court in Nigeria. Beyond that, what’s your assessment of the Nigerian situation regarding religious rights and freedom of expression?
It’s clear to us that Nigeria meets the definition of a Country of Particular Concern because the government engages in these violations itself and also tolerates them. It’s two parts, engaging in severe religious freedom violations and tolerating them from non-state actors.
That’s why USCIRF placed the country in the category of Country of Particular Concern?
That’s why it was so disappointing that the (Biden) administration made the decision to remove them (last year) because by doing so, they are saying that Nigeria does not fit the definition of a religious freedom violator when clearly, they do.
Regarding Nigeria, some Muslims feel that the accusing finger is mainly pointed at them and their religion as the aggressor. How does USCIRF draw its conclusions about countries like Nigeria?
We speak with a variety of groups in Nigeria. This includes human rights advocates and human rights organizations. And so, we are pretty confident of our findings. I think we’ve reported that there have been plenty of Muslims also targeted by Boko Haram and other Islamist groups as well. So, I don’t think we’ve focused only on Christians. We made it very clear, for instance, that 13 religious leaders were kidnapped for ransom, including two pastors and three imams.
There’s also another allegation by Africans generally that Western governments and agencies like USCIRF try to force them to adopt practices such as gay rights that they consider alien to their societies, and when they refuse to toe the line, they are branded intolerant or repressive as the case may be. How do you respond to that?
We have been pretty clear on standing up against any crimes against LGBT communities, against any community targeted because of religion or laws. We don’t speak into other issues other than religious freedom. We stand strong to speak out against any violence or any targeting of any minority group based on religious laws including LGBT. We try to stay within the lane of religious freedom.
You have traveled to some countries around the world in the course of your work. What are some of the things you find fascinating, surprising or shocking in terms of religious freedom generally in places you’ve been to?
I think the most surprising is how some governments and some government officials are afraid of religious freedom and are afraid it would bring chaos, violence, … just destabilize the country. It’s actually the opposite. Religious freedom stabilizes countries, brings peace and freedom. So, a lot of education needs to be done in terms of the importance of religious freedom and how religious communities make wonderful citizens. They are peaceful. And so, I think part of it is the education of looking at religious freedom differently and not being afraid of the diversity that allowing religious freedom will bring.
“Religious freedom stabilizes countries, brings peace and freedom.”
Africa faces the challenge of religious insurgency. Looking at the menace of terrorist groups in the continent, do you have any idea how this can be contained?
Clamping down on Islamic communities by taking away their rights isn’t going to stop radical Islam. That is one of the mistakes we see: Governments that are afraid of Islamists make the mistake of clamping down on the entire Islamic community, and that doesn’t help with fighting radical Islam. So, it’s important to allow people to peacefully practice their faith. But of course, to not allow radical elements. … So, government has a right to block those from interacting with religious communities but clamping down on them is not the best way forward. The best way forward is to actually let people practice their faith. That’s better for religious communities.
You’ve worked in USCIRF under two different administrations: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Are there difference in policies between the two administrations that you notice, and does this matter for the kind of work USCIRF does?
Well, it’s clear that, under President Trump, religious freedom was a priority and was talked about often. Of course, the Trump administration started the ministerial for religious freedom and many other executive orders on religious freedom and had many initiatives to promote religious freedom. With the Biden administration, we have seen it continue most of those religious freedom programs so that is very encouraging. USCIRF has had a lot of engagement with the administration. We’ve had lots of meetings and dialogue about our concerns and recommendations. So, they certainly had an open door to USCIRF. This report (2022) covers the first year of the Biden administration. So, obviously, as they continue, we will see a little bit more how they follow our recommendation, but we’ve been encouraged by what we see from the Biden administration at this point in time.
What’s your take on the situation in Afghanistan that was created by the overthrow of Ashraf Ghani’s government by the Taliban last year, which led to mass exodus and a refugee crisis in the U.S. and other countries by people who were scared or don’t share the Taliban’s strict Islamic ideology?
Yes, we are extremely concerned about the people of Afghanistan, (including) the religious minority communities. As you said, (those) who don’t follow the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam are at risk. We made a stronger conviction that the U.S. government expand the existing (program) to allow religious minorities to apply to the U.S. refugee admission program to be able to resettle here. We do hope the Biden administration or Congress will make that change. And it’s important that the U.S. government do what it can to work with their partners that are engaging with the Taliban about the protection of these religious minorities.
We currently have a war in Ukraine created by Russia’s invasion of the country. How concerned are you about the issue of religious freedom there?
Of course, we are most concerned about the violence that’s happening to civilians in Ukraine. But it’s important to note that Russia is one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world. And in the areas that Russia already has invaded in Ukraine — like Donbass and Crimea — we see horrific religious freedom conditions and crimes being committed against religious communities. And so, the Russian government currently (aims) legislation to prosecute religious minorities, including members of the church of Ukraine, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. So, if Russia expands its occupation in Ukraine, we will expect religious freedom conditions to decline dramatically.
“It’s important to note that Russia is one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.”
After your tenure in USCIRF expires, what would you be focusing on going forward?
Well, the one thing I have learned being in a government agency is that while government-to-government interactions and legal changes are important for religious freedom improvement, it’s not sufficient. Civil society plays an important role in working in communities’ education. The grassroots have a big role to play in changing their own countries, societies’ way of accepting different religious communities, and so I plan to go back to civil society like I was before coming to USCIRF. I’m particularly supportive of roundtables around the world. I do believe they bring civil society, government leaders and religious communities to work together locally in their countries and communities. It’s been proven to be really positive impact and a key part of improving religious freedom conditions. And, of course, I expect to continue working with governments like Uzbekistan for instance, a country I’m really proud of the work we’ve done there. I will continue visiting there and will continue with my work in Iraq and Syria. So, I will continue to do the things I was doing, just in a different capacity.
As you leave USCIRF, are there areas you think they can improve upon in regard to their mandate of monitoring religious freedom worldwide?
I think USCIRF has grown in the four years I’ve been there. They’ve become more influential and responsive to what’s happening on the ground, and I hope USCIRF will continue to (monitor) and make recommendations that help inform the U.S. government (to) make better choices to include religious freedom in their decision making. So, I think I’m really at peace where USCIRF is right now and hope they continue doing the things we’ve been doing in the last couple of years. In Congress for instance, we had eight hearings last year. I think it’s important to continue to have those hearings to explain why our recommendations are important, bring experts in to talk about how (they matter) in foreign policy. Several years ago, (with) USCIRF, it was just the annual report. We’ve been able to shorten the annual report. It’s more digestible, has more analytics and recommendations and we were able to produce over 30 reports last year, in addition to 50 podcasts, so we have a whole lot of output and I think it’s important USCIRF continues to do that. It’s strategic how it does it, in order to elevate and help educate people about being part of religious freedom.
“I’m really at peace where USCIRF is right now and hope they continue doing the things we’ve been doing in the last couple of years.”
Should we look forward to reading a book someday about your experiences?
I would love to, definitely. With the work I’ve done in places like Syria and Afghanistan, I’ve got something to share and would continue to learn more.
Some people know you as the powerful lady at USCIRF. But there are things like family life, leisure, that are personal to you. Would you mind to share them?
Well, I’m very close to my family. I’m currently (visiting) with my daughter. We spent a lot of time in Washington where she’s a student. I’m also a musician, but most people quite don’t know that. I sing and play piano. … That was going to be the profession but with the policy world, that kind of changed. My family is very much also supportive of the work I’m doing.
What’s the most fascinating country you’ve been to and why?
I have to say, being in Raqqa, Syria, four years before being the headquarters of the ISIS caliphate; being there and meeting with communities that now embraced some freedom, … how they transformed their community from the ISIS caliphate to being a government that embraces religious freedom and women in leadership. How they did that and the price they paid, to me, probably was one of the most stunning examples in knowing how few people, even at that time, understood what they’ve done, let alone see it firsthand. … How they’ve embedded multiethnic, religious principles into every level of government is something we can learn from. And they did it in the middle of a civil war while they were fighting ISIS. So, they had every excuse to not do it. … I think there’s a lot we can learn from them and also help them in areas that are fragile, to help them to be able to set up self-governing (processes) where they can also protect these kinds of rights.
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian born-freelance journalist who currently lives in Houston. He covers Africa for BNG.
In survey of religious oppression across the globe, Russia, Afghanistan and China take center stage