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Clinton: Religious liberty ‘sliding backwards’

WASHINGTON (BP) — Religious freedom around the globe is “sliding backwards,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said upon the release of her department’s annual report on the issue.

Speaking July 30, Clinton said of the current state of international religious liberty, “More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression. Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that the pressure is rising. Even some countries that are making progress on expanding political freedom are frozen in place when it comes to religious freedom.”

Clinton offered her remarks on the same day the State Department released its latest religious freedom report, which covered 199 countries and territories for the calendar year 2011.

In response to the report and Clinton’s speech, expressions of both commendation and criticism came from religious liberty advocates.

Speaking in Washington, the secretary of State affirmed religious freedom for the United States as “a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest and a foreign policy priority.”

In seeking to influence other countries, Clinton said, America “will continue to try to push and prod and persuade and then, if necessary, look at ways to use consequences that can send a very clear message that we believe that you will not be successful, you will not be stable, you will not be secure, and you will certainly not have a sustainable democracy [without protecting religious freedom].”

During her speech, she addressed the challenges facing various governments on the issue of religious liberty.

In Egypt, Clinton said she “heard from Christians who want to know that they will be accorded the same rights and respect as all Egyptians in a new government led by an Islamist party. They wonder, understandably, will a government looking explicitly to greater reliance on Islamic principles stand up for non-Muslims and Muslims equally?”

“If you’re in Iraq, you need to be protecting every community, not just one or maybe two at the most,” Clinton said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “If you’re in Lebanon, you need to be standing up for the rights of everyone in the community, every confession. And similarly in Egypt or Pakistan or Indonesia or China or India or anywhere, leaders need to be out front saying that, and then acting on it.”

Thomas Farr, the first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom (1999-2003), commended the report as “the world’s gold standard for a comprehensive catalogue of repression, discrimination, and persecution on the basis of religion.” He also described Clinton’s address as “her strongest speech to date on why religious liberty is important.”

There are problems, however, with the State Department’s approach to the issue, said Farr, the current director of the Project on Religious Freedom at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He said in a blog post at National Review Online:

— Suzan Johnson Cook, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, “has little authority, few resources, and a bureaucracy that is — notwithstanding the secretary’s fine words — largely indifferent to the advancement of international religious freedom.”

— A brief review of the report’s policy sections “will tell you that we have little in the way of coordinated [international religious freedom] strategy for these countries.”

Farr said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this issue is not a priority for this administration, except perhaps for the speechwriters (who are doing an outstanding job).”

One of Congress’ leading advocates for global religious liberty, Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., chided the Obama administration for its failures on the issue.

“The real question is, what will the administration do differently than simply dialogue with abusers? Under [federal law], it can and should move quickly to designate Countries of Particular Concern and attach appropriate sanctions,” Smith said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, despite Secretary Clinton’s words today, this administration has for almost four years shown very little commitment to promoting religious freedom.”

The administration should apply new sanctions in response to religious liberty violations rather than redesignate ones already in existence, Smith said. It also should tie foreign aid to a country’s religious freedom status, he said. Congress attached such conditions to $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt, but Clinton waived them this year, he said.

Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, commended the report, adding, “The next step, and real challenge, is convincing policymakers that prioritizing religious freedom through our bilateral and multilateral relationships is both a moral imperative and serves our national interests. The other challenge is convincing foreign governments to make needed improvements.”

Swett echoed Smith’s request for the State Department to designate “countries of particular concern (CPCs)” quickly. For now, the State Department continued with the same CPC list announced in September of last year. The eight on the list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. CPC designation is reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.

In the report’s executive summary, the State Department included the following observations regarding religious freedom in 2011:

— Governments such as those of Bahrain, Iraq, Nigeria and Russia reacted to conflict by failing to “distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities” and thereby limited religious liberty.

— Authorities in such countries as Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia “increasingly used blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion laws” to restrict the rights of religious minorities.

— A “rising tide” of anti-Semitism afflicted such countries as Egypt, France, Hungary and Venezuela.

President Obama and other administration officials urged governments to protect religious freedom –- and sought to assist them — in countries such as Burma and Egypt that underwent political change last year, according to the report.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).