WASHINGTON: The United States on Friday added Pakistan, China and Latin American adversaries Cuba and Nicaragua, among others, 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.
"The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses," Blinken said in a statement.
Cuba and Nicaragua were both newly designated as "Countries of Particular Concern" under the annual determinations, meaning that the two leftist-led states — already under US sanctions — could face further measures.
Blinken kept on the blacklist all Countries of Particular Concern from 2021 — Pakistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, 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.
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 Vatican-blessed effort to seek an opening with the long-time US nemesis.
In its latest annual report on religious freedom issued in June, the State Department pointed to violence and arrests of Cuban religious figures over purported roles in rare public protests as well as restrictions on non-recognised Protestant churches.
"These actions represented a shift to engaging 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 blacklisting, calling it "arbitrary" and "dishonest."
"It is known that in Cuba there is religious freedom," Rodriguez tweeted.
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.
The Commission said in a statement it was "outraged" that Blinken did not list India or Nigeria, saying the State Department´s own reporting showed "severe religious freedom violations" in both countries.
India had already voiced anger over the State Department´s annual report, 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 the Central African Republic, citing Amnesty International in linking the mercenaries to killings and sexual violence against Muslims.
The designation comes as US senators introduced legislation to slap a terrorism designation on the Wagner Group, which has also been involved in Mali and been accused of rights violations in Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
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 but successive administrations have been building ties with the former US adversary.
Algeria and Comoros remained on the watchlist from 2021.
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