U.S. ‘must do more’ for religious freedom

By Tom Strode
May 5, 2010

The United States government “must do more” to protect religious freedom around the world, according to the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

USCIRF, in its annual report, called on the Obama administration to correct the shortcomings it has demonstrated on global religious liberty in its first 15 months in office. The government’s “foreign policy on religious freedom is missing the mark,” USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said.

During a two-hour news conference April 29 in Washington, commissioners named by officeholders from both political parties pointed to the following examples of the Obama administration’s inadequacies on the issue:

  • President Obama has yet to nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
  • The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have fallen short for nearly a year in defending religious liberty, referring to “freedom of worship” in speeches while largely being silent about the broader right of religious freedom.
  • Clinton has not named “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a designation that is to be made each year for the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.

The failure of Obama and Clinton to speak out for religious liberty could be taken by others to imply policy changes on the issue, Leo told reporters. “Freedom of worship is only one aspect of religious freedom, and a purposeful change in language could mean a much narrower view of the right, ignoring such components as religiously motivated expression and religious education,” he said.

U.S. foreign policy “must be better at exposing and castigating the Potemkin villages of religious worship created by some countries where churches might well be propped up for services but where the faithful can’t get basic services because of their views, are gunned down with impunity while leaving their churches, are viciously caricatured and attacked by the state-run media, and are otherwise relegated to second-class citizenship,” Leo said. “The oppressed of this world look to the administration, and indeed all of us, with hope and forbearance to do more.”

Leo and other commissioners acknowledged, however, Obama’s administration is not the first that has “threaded the needle,” as Leo put it, or missed the mark on religious freedom.

President Bush did so on a trip to China, Leo said.

“He too referenced religious worship and not freedom of religion broadly and, beyond that, often did not prioritize freedom of religion the way it should have been on our foreign policy and national security agendas,” Leo said.

Commissioner Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said it is USCIRF’s job “to trumpet the importance of this until our government gets it. And I think it would be fair to say that under the Clinton administration and the Bush administration and under the Obama administration, the State Department has not gotten it in any sense that we … believe would be adequate, much less acceptable.”

Leo told reporters, “There really needs to be a cultural shift here in the government. The problems that we’re talking about are not new…. [A]dministration after administration has not made freedom of religion a priority in its foreign policy, national security and economic development agendas…. Freedom of religion has to be viewed as inextricably intertwined with the business of foreign policy and national security, and that hasn’t happened” in the years since USCIRF was established by a 1998 law.

In its report, USCIRF recommended the same 13 countries as it did last year for CPC designation, which is reserved for foreign governments that have participated in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty. They are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

Just before Obama took office in January 2009, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice named the same eight countries as CPCs that had been designated in 2006. The CPCs were, and remain to this day, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. While USCIRF recommends to the State Department the countries it believes should be CPCs, only the State Department makes the designations.

The commission also named to its “watch list” a dozen countries: Afghanistan; Belarus; Cuba; Egypt; India; Indonesia; Laos; Russia; Somalia; Tajikistan; Turkey, and Venezuela. “Watch list” countries are those that do not reach the level of CPCs but “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent” of abuses of religious freedom.

There was not unanimous agreement on the CPC recommendation for Iraq. Land, as well as fellow commissioners Michael Cromartie and Talal Y. Eid, dissented, saying Iraq should be placed on the “watch list,” not the CPC list.

Commissioners pointed to three categories of religious freedom violations in their report:

  • In discussing governments that are hostile to “religion, religious communities and/or religious leadership,” USCIRF cited Afghanistan, China, Iran, North Korea and Sudan as examples.
  • States that sponsor “extremist ideology and education,” such as textbooks that promote intolerance, are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the commission said.
  • The third category is impunity, which refers to a government’s failure to address violations of religious liberty by groups within the country. Egypt and Nigeria are examples of such countries.

The commission also expressed deep concern about the international effort to pass “defamation of religions” resolutions. Such resolutions call for the condemnation of messages that defame religions and can lead to violence. Non-binding “defamation of religions” resolutions adopted in the United Nations Human Rights Council the last two years cited only Islam as a specific target

The “defamation of religions” movement basically seeks to gain approval of a “global blasphemy law to protect Islam,” said Eid, a Muslim imam, at the news conference. “International human rights law protect[s] individuals, not beliefs or belief systems.”

Commissioner Elizabeth Prodromou said the possible consequences of the “defamation of religions” effort are “catastrophic for religious freedom, and they would adversely affect all believers regardless of persuasion.”

Land said, “It is about as bad an idea as has surfaced in the world in the recent past.”

As it had in previous reports, the commission expressed its dissatisfaction with the U.S. government’s failure to use the tools provided by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to bring change in countries designated as CPCs. The law requires the president to take specific actions regarding governments designated as CPCs. He is provided a range of options, from diplomacy to economic sanctions. The president also has the authority to waive any action.

Among the current CPCs, the only country to be sanctioned exclusively under IRFA is Eritrea.

The commission’s responsibility is to advise the administration and Congress regarding the conditions for religious liberty overseas. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the commission. USCIRF’s report may be accessed online.

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