It is Time to Prioritize Religious Freedom in U.S. Foreign Policy

It Is Time To Prioritize Religious Freedom In U.S. Foreign Policy
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

This article was excerpted from testimony presented before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.

The issue of religious liberty is not a new one. The very first act of violence recorded in Judeo-Christian history is one of religious persecution: Cain's killing of Abel demonstrates that even at the very beginning of human history, Man found ways in which to demonize and ultimately persecute and kill one another based on religious practice.

Since the days of Cain and Abel, conditions have not improved. In the twentieth century alone, more people died for their faith than in all previous 19 centuries combined. Nearly one billion people face significant discrimination and persecution because of their religious beliefs and identity. In comparable terms, on any given day more than three times the population of the United States is potentially threatened or even killed by the way they choose to pray or not to pray.

While the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was meant to help alleviate the potential and actual suffering of millions of people around the globe based on their religious and belief choices, the situation of religious freedom has in fact deteriorated since Congress's unanimous passage of the bill in 1998.

Sadly, the great spirit of IRFA was never fully incorporated into the letter of policy. While each president since the passage of IRFA has acknowledged the importance of religious freedom, none has been a champion of the cause. Despite the importance of religious liberty issues to American security -- particularly in a post-9/11 world -- economics and finance, general human rights, and other vital interests, presidents have fulfilled only the most basic requirements of IRFA.

Thankfully the lack of presidential leadership on this issue was matched equally with ardent and unwavering passion for the issue from Members of Congress. Chris Smith, Frank Wolf, Trent Franks, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Don Payne, Brad Sherman, and a few others have taken immeasurable responsibility in guaranteeing this most basic and fundamental right is protected globally. However, if religious liberty is ever to be a significant priority in U.S. foreign policy, it is imperative that both the Executive and Legislative branches uphold both the spirit and the letter of the International Religious Freedom Act.

Simple acts on the part of any of the three Presidents since the passage of IRFA would have sent a clear and demonstrable message that religious liberty matters. For example, Title III, Sec. 301 of IRFA offers a sense of Congress that "there should be within the staff of the National Security Council a Special Adviser to the President on International Religious Freedom, whose position should be comparable to that of a Director within the Executive Office of the President. The Special Adviser should serve as a resource for executive branch officials, compiling and maintaining information on the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom (as defined in section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998), and making policy recommendations. The Special Adviser should serve as liaison with the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Congress and, as advisable, religious nongovernmental organizations."

Neither the Clinton Administration, the Bush Administration, nor the Obama Administration fully implemented the suggestion of Congress that a Special Adviser be appointed.

As the principal advisor to the President and the Secretary of State, and as the coordinator of overall U.S. international religious freedom policy, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom was never invited to even one Cabinet meeting to brief the Cabinet on their efforts and ways in which each appropriate Cabinet department/agency can work with the Ambassador's office to enhance the issue. As of this writing, religious liberty has never been on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting since the passage of IRFA. It would seem that a discussion on that topic would have been vital to entrench religious liberty in overall U.S. foreign policy as envisioned by the authors of IRFA.

Religious liberty is too significant and impactful an issue to be handled half-heartedly.

Prioritizing religious liberty requires a commitment of both the Executive and Legislative Branches to fulfill the spirit and letter of IRFA as an Act -- and religious liberty as an issue.

HR 1856, a bill to amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) to strengthen the promotion of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy and to reauthorize the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently introduced by Congressman Frank Wolf, provides an historic opportunity to review the successes -- and more importantly the failures -- of the past 13 years and improve how religious liberty is prioritized and exercised in overall U.S. policy.

Mr. Wolf once again deserves appreciation and recognition for his unbending leadership on and passion for religious liberty issues. His prophetic vision for the protection of all religious minorities and his legislative mastery in HR 1856 and the original Wolf/Specter bill which led to IRFA have provided us with a strong set of tools to advance this issue and to guarantee that religious liberty is a priority in U.S. foreign policy. But HR 1856 can be an even stronger tool for religious liberty were if it included some of the following recommendations.

The U.S. too often deals with human rights and religious liberty issues only in bilateral discussions, or in specific multilateral fora like the OSCE or the UN Human Rights Council. The United States must begin multilateral partnership and engagement on human rights and religious freedom issues. Alone, the U.S. will be far less likely to advance such vital interests than it would in concert with other stakeholders.

Intelligence agencies must increase their monitoring and analysis of social conditions such as religious liberty as indicators of rising extremism and potential security threats. Had U.S. intelligence agencies been monitoring the rise of extremism in Afghanistan under the Taliban prior to 2001, the United States could have better understood the worldview and potential threat to the United States posed by the Taliban and their protection and support of Al Qaeda. While we may never have been able to stop the attacks of 9/11, we would have had a much clearer understanding of priorities and mindsets.

The U.S. Government's approach to freedom of religion has not been a balanced one. There is no stick and carrot, but instead, just a stick approach. Currently, there is no incentive for states that discriminate or persecute their citizens but do not meet the threshold of "Country of Particular Concern" status to improve their religious freedom conditions. In order to advance religious liberty in states whose conditions do not meet the CPC levels but nonetheless are problematic, the IRF report can serve as the functional mechanism. Taking a lesson from the Trafficking in Persons Report, the IRF report should establish tiers or categories based on ones already outlined in the Executive Summary of the IRF report to categorize all countries in the world. Discrimination cannot go unreported, as incidents of discrimination directly lead to persecution.

The bill established a significant amount of new responsibilities for the IRF office, all of which are necessary for the advancement of the issue. Unfortunately, the bill does not provide for the corresponding resources to follow through on those responsibilities. As a result, a line item in the budget should be established for the Office of International Religious Freedom that would enable the Office to manage its own personnel and program funds, allowing it to appropriately and functionally promote religious liberty globally without the hassle of internal budget concerns.

Current law requires all incidents of anti-Semitism to be included in the IRF Report, even though not all anti-Semitism is religion-related, let alone a violation of religious freedom. The blurring of this line provides fodder for Muslim extremists to argue that the IRF Office's real mission is to promote "Zionism". Congress might consider requiring incidents of anti-Semitism be included in the annual Human Rights Report, and only where an incident of anti-Semitism is based on the Jewish religion would they be included in the annual Religious Freedom Report.

The bill does much to strengthen the active work of an Administration to take religious liberty seriously. However, certain provisions of the bill blur the line between the separation of powers. For example, the bill's requirement that the President explain why he did not follow the recommendation of USCIRF on the naming of a country as a CPC places both the President and the State Department under the authorization of USCIRF, a position in which the President and Secretary may not be thrilled to find themselves.

The bill establishes also a provision to eliminate the possibility of waiving sanctions, even for national security reasons. This would make it less likely that religious freedom violators would be designated as "Countries of Particular Concern" if they are states with which the United States have significant and overarching security interests.

There needs to be much more interaction and integration (which the legislation begins to foster) between State and other federal agencies on religious freedom. It would be beneficial to require personnel from other agencies that operate overseas and whose work is affected by foreign government's religious considerations also receive training on religious beliefs prevalent where they are operating and religious freedom values that we are trying to promote there.

International broadcasting is one platform that could be used far more effectively to promote religious freedom. The same is true for international exchanges. The bill should take up such measures.

Refugee and asylum reforms are needed, especially in places such as Iraq, where religious minorities are persecuted, but the process of getting refugee status or asylum takes far too long. As a result, many are killed before they can get out.

Sanctions are often double-hatted; rather than imposing new sanctions for religious freedom violations, the State Department designates sanctions that are already in place as also being for religious freedom violations. The Department is also extremely reluctant to use visa denials for those responsible for religious freedom violations as a sanction. This needs to change.

The recommended change in Sec. 102(b)(1)(B), which adds the line "whether in matters of private belief and practice or the peaceful involvement of such groups in the political life of a nation" raises serious and significant concerns. The addition of political rights violations into the mandate of the IRF Office dangerously blurs the mission of the Office and raises the specter that religious freedom is being used as a tool of regime change.

While my reputation precedes me regarding my opinion of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, I do not and will not oppose the reauthorization of USCIRF. In fact, I will become its new champion if USCIRF takes on a more significant, immediate and necessary role as the mediator and integrator of religious liberty into overall U.S. foreign policy, rather than serving as a watchdog to the State Department. To be blunt, a watchdog agency should not have an equal or greater number of staff or resources than the office it oversees. As such, it makes little sense to reauthorize USCIRF and increase its funding if that is its only role. However, USCIRF can serve an impactful and authoritative role as the integrating body of religious liberty to other departments and agencies. And that can and must be encouraged in the bill itself.

Consider this analogy: Imagine a school in which three teachers are paid minimum wage and granted no financial resources to teach every subject to a large body of students. Now, imagine this school additionally pays three outside consultants a quarter of a million dollars each to monitor these teachers, and grants them unlimited resources to report on the ineffective work of the teachers. In this way, the US Commission inappropriately monitors the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom.

HR 1856 also strikes all language referring to term limits of Commissioners. If USCIRF is to remain a relevant and active institution, its members must periodically change to insert new ideas, new worldviews, new perspective, and new experiences. The term limits are fundamentally important.

Finally, the status of the Office of International Religious Freedom within the State Department makes a significant difference. Congressional intent in IRFA was clear and direct that the Office of International Religious Freedom within the State Department was meant to be located within the Office of the Secretary of State (S/) and not under another bureau. In order to demonstrate that the office and the Ambassador are not Potemkin villages, the Office should be firmly placed within the Office of the Secretary, the Ambassador at Large invited to the Secretary's daily briefings, and as "principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad," be consulted on overall U.S. policy where religion may be a factor. This is not simply a symbolic move; it is a functional one guaranteeing the Office receives its appropriate resources and the ability to push such a significant issue while ensuring the IRF Office need not compete with other bureau priorities to advance its issues.

As Secretary Clinton said at the swearing in of Ambassador at Large Suzan Johnson Cook, "we will work hand in hand". It is the Congress's duty to guarantee this is accomplished.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community