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Washington, DC – Amid efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) calls on governments to release all prisoners held because of their religion or belief around the world.

Globally, an untold number of victims are held behind bars unjustly for exercising their freedom of religion or belief,” stated  USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins. “We call on governments to release all prisoners wrongly detained and, in the meantime, provide adequate health conditions and safety for those who must remain behind bars.”

Under international human rights law, states must take steps to prevent threats to public health. However, in many countries it is virtually impossible for authorities to follow public health guidelines to tackle the virus within prisons. Prisons are often overcrowded, which creates an elevated risk for COVID-19 to rapidly spread among prisoners who cannot socially distance. Increasing the risk of spreading within prison populations is the lack of acceptable healthcare and unhygienic conditions that are endemic to many prison systems.

To reduce the number of individuals detained in response to the threat of COVID-19, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has called on governments to release every person held without sufficient legal basis and those jailed for expressing dissenting or critical views.

“Individuals behind bars in crowded prisons are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, especially those held in facilities without suitable medical care. During this public health emergency, religious prisoners of conscience must not be further punished for their most deeply held convictions by remaining in prison despite the threat posed by COVID-19,” said Vice Chair Gayle Manchin.

USCIRF advocates on behalf of individuals imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief through its Religious Prisoner of Conscience Project, and also catalogues select victims targeted for the exercise of their freedom of religion or belief in the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Victims List. USCIRF recently released a factsheet about the effect of COVID-19 on religious freedom.


The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief. To interview a Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at or Danielle Ashbahian at

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