WASHINGTON (BP)–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke forcefully against international efforts to adopt policies outlawing the defamation of religions while presenting the Obama administration’s first report on global religious freedom.
The State Department issued its annual assessment of the conditions for religious expression in 198 countries, the first such report since President Obama took office in January. The report, issued Oct. 26, demonstrates there have been both positive and negative trends in the last year, a State Department official told reporters.
Clinton, in introducing the report, took the opportunity to express her disapproval of the defamation of religions movement. Led by the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the effort promotes the condemnation of messages that defame religions and can lead to violence.
“[S]ome claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion. I strongly disagree,” Clinton said.
“The United States will always seek to counter negative stereotypes of individuals based on their religion and will stand against discrimination and persecution. But an individual’s ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others’ freedom of speech,” Clinton told reporters. “The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions. These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse.”
The American experience shows “the best antidote to intolerance is not the defamation of religions approach of banning and punishing offensive speech but, rather, a combination of robust legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, proactive government outreach to minority religious groups and the vigorous defense of both freedom of religion and expression,” Clinton said.
The OIC may introduce a defamation of religions resolution at the United Nations any day, according to an Oct. 28 report by the American Center for Law and Justice. Such a resolution “stifles the religious freedoms of millions of Christians around the world,” ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow said. It could encourage U.N. members to enact laws barring defamation of religions, empowering Islamic states that seek to ban the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus, he said.
The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted in March a defamation of religions resolution with a plurality, not a majority, of its 47 members in support. The non-binding resolution, which cited only Islam as a specific target, urges countries to protect “against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from defamation of religions and incitement to religious hatred in general.”
If the U.N. were to make such language binding, “it would suck the life’s blood out of religious freedom and freedom of speech in countries around the world,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, after the council’s vote. “It must be vigorously opposed by all who love freedom and liberty.”
The positive trends noted in the new State Department report included the interfaith work initiated by some countries, said Michael Posner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
Among the negative trends, Posner said, are “blasphemy laws, tremendous interfaith tensions in many societies, … more restrictions by government ministries on the right of religious groups to register, to receive funds…. We see that in a lot of the Central Asian republics … greater control by government officials prohibiting free expression of religion, and particularly for non-majority religions.”
On questions about individual countries at the Oct. 26 news conference, Posner included the following assessments from the report:
— China is marked by “a number of very troubling developments,” especially its treatment of Buddhist monks in Tibet. The “rapidly growing Christian community” under the communist regime is an encouragement, Posner said. “A percentage, but not a majority, are in … churches recognized by the state. But somewhere between 50 and 90 million people practice Christianity in unrecognized churches that are not registered in many cases. And so what we’re trying to do is encourage the Chinese government to recognize and allow people of faith, of various faiths, to practice.”
— In Cuba, “marginal change” may be occurring, “but the overall picture is really grim,” Posner said. “[T]here has been a gradual softening in terms of the ability of Christian, Catholic and other religious groups to operate in Cuba. But it’s against that larger backdrop of a society that still denies human rights on a daily basis.”
— In Saudi Arabia, religious liberty “remains a subject of great concern,” Posner said. “People aren’t allowed to openly practice their religion if they’re not Muslim. There is still a religious police that interrupts people even in private settings…. [A]nd we have still the concerns about the textbooks which continue to be disseminated not only in Saudi Arabia but around the world … which still contain things that we consider beyond the pale.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel that makes policy recommendations to the State Department and Congress, commended the department and its overseas diplomats for their work but called for action by the Obama administration.
“To date, President Obama has raised religious freedom in his speeches abroad without those sentiments being translated into concrete policy actions, and our hope is that this report will be the administration’s call to action,” USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said in a written release. “This report can serve as a solid baseline for determining effective U.S. policy toward severe religious freedom violators. The report makes clear that the United States must do more to ensure reforms are made and implemented.”
USCIRF called on the State Department quickly to designate its “countries of particular concern,” a classification reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious liberty, and to enact policies to bring change under those regimes.
The State Department will attempt to make those designations by January, Posner said.
Eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — are now on the CPC list, designated by outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January.
In its annual report in May, USCIRF recommended that five other countries — Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam — be named CPCs. Though USCIRF makes recommendations for the CPC list, only the State Department gives countries that designation.
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., a leading congressional voice for religious freedom and human rights internationally, urged Obama to select soon an ambassador at large for international religious freedom, saying a strong person in that position “would send a message to oppressors all over the world — and their would-be victims — that religious freedom continues to be a high priority in American foreign policy.”
Richard Land is one of USCIRF’s nine commissioners.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.