The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent U.S. federal government advisory body, is recommending that the State Department add eight nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.

In its 2015 annual report, released Thursday, the commission recommended for the first time that the Central African Republic be added to the list for the first time. It also recommended that the list include Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam. The commission also advised that nine nations be redesignated as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

“We are identifying their governments as well as others as either perpetrating or tolerating some of the worse abuses of religious freedom in the world,” the report stated.

Concerning Iran, where, the report said, Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini has been abused in prison, the commission recommends that the US always include violations of religious freedom in any multilateral or bilateral talks it conducts with the Islamic republic. Though it does not specify the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, the report recommends that the US “ensure that violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of multilateral or bilateral discussions with the Iranian government whenever possible, and continue to work closely with European and other allies to apply pressure through a combination of advocacy, diplomacy, and targeted sanctions.”

The report argues strongly for the rule of law in countries such as Iraq and Syria, where Christians, among others, have been persecuted by the Islamic State group. Christians had been protected there in the past by strongmen such as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein or Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but such protections are subject to changing fortunes. Once such leaders are removed, religious minorities are very often at the mercy of extremist groups who fill the vacuum. 

The commission is chaired by Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. Vice chairman are Princeton Professor Robert P. George and pollster James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. Other commissioners include former Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon and Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.