WASHINGTON (BP)–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the opportunity of the federal government’s latest International Religious Freedom Report to speak out for a broad view of religious liberty, pleasing a bipartisan panel that had questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to the issue.
The State Department issued its annual report on global religious liberty Nov. 17, specifying the many abuses — along with some improvements — among 198 countries.
The department, however, failed to designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), a category reserved for the most severe violators of religious freedom. The 1998 law requiring the annual report also calls for a yearly designation of CPCs. None, however, have been named in nearly two years. The Bush administration designated CPCs in January 2008, only four days before President Obama was inaugurated.
In introducing the report, Clinton told reporters it “reflects a broad understanding of religious freedom, one that begins with private beliefs and communal religious expression, but doesn’t end there. Religious freedom also includes the right to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to change one’s religion — by choice, not coercion, and to practice no religion at all. And it includes the rights of faith communities to come together in social service and public engagement in the broader society.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a nine-member panel that reports to the Congress and administration on religious rights overseas, welcomed Clinton’s “strong language stressing all facets of religious freedom,” said Leonard Leo, the panel’s chairman.
“We are pleased to see a return to the broader ‘religious freedom’ rubric” in comments by Clinton and Obama, he said in a written statement.
USCIRF had expressed concern upon releasing its annual report in April that Obama and Clinton had fallen short for nearly a year in defending religious liberty. They had been referring to “freedom of worship” in speeches while largely being silent about the broader right of religious freedom, according to USCIRF.
“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,” Leo said at the time.
USCIRF was not as pleased at the State Department’s failure to name CPCs.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Leo said. He called on the State Department “to act decisively and promptly designate” CPCs.
Michael Posner — assistant secretary of State over the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor -– told reporters the designation of CPCs is a separate project. Those countries will be named “in the next couple of months,” he said.
The State Department has made such a promise before. When the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report was announced in October of that year, Posner said the State Department would seek to make those designations by January 2010.
Eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — are on the most recent CPC list.
USCIRF recommended in April the State Department designate Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as CPCs, in addition to the eight already on the list. 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 advocate for religious liberty overseas, urged the Obama administration to follow up CPC designations with sanctions where needed. IRFA 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.
When the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was written, “we intended that the sanctions regime be wielded much more actively than it has been wielded in the last 10 years,” Smith said in a written statement.
As she did when last year’s report was issued, Clinton 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. Such a resolution, which has singled out Islam for protection, may be considered by the United Nations General Assembly as early as Nov. 22.
America “joins in all nations coming together to condemn hateful speech, but we do not support the banning of that speech,” Clinton said. “Indeed, freedom of speech and freedom of religion emanate from the same fundamental belief that communities and individuals are enriched and strengthened by a diversity of ideas, and attempts to stifle them or drive them underground, even when it is in the name and with the intention of protecting society, have the opposite effect.”
In addition to the eight countries already designated as CPCs and the five also recommended for that label by USCIRF, other governments cited by the State Department for falling short in respecting or protecting religious freedom for all groups and individuals included Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Maldives, Russia and Somalia.
The 2010 International Religious Freedom Report is available online at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010/index.htm.
On Nov. 15, Elizabeth Prodromou, USCIRF vice chair, criticized Russia’s anti-extremism legislation regarding religious groups.
“It defines extremism in such a way that religious groups that neither practice nor preach violence fall under that category,” she said at a conference in Brussels, Belgium, according to USCIRF. “Moreover, Russian authorities apply anti-extremist laws in an overly broad and arbitrary manner. The result is a repeated and heavy-handed use of the law against religious adherents who pose no credible threat to security, and whose only ‘crime’ is a failure to conform to mainstream ideas and beliefs.”
USCIRF’s members are appointed by the president and congressional leaders. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is one of the USCIRF commissioners.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.