Freedom to worship

A year ago this month, President Barack Obama, in a much heralded speech in Cairo, Egypt, included religious freedom in his list of seven issues of priority importance to America in its relations with Islamic nations.  

This was good news for people who long have argued that religious freedom should be a major foreign policy concern for the United States — and not just in the Islamic world. 

And so the past 12 months have witnessed a series of American policy initiatives matching the president’s words in Cairo, right? Wrong. What the year has witnessed instead, in the estimate of people who keep tabs on this issue, has been foot-dragging on religious freedom by the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton’s State Department. One sign is the long delay in naming, as required by law, an ambassador at large to head up the State’s efforts in this area. 

“The oppressed of the world look to this administration, indeed, all of us, with hope and forbearance, to do more,” U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Leonard Leo told a Washington, D.C., press conference last month. 

Out in the real world, the situation of religious freedom hasn’t been getting better lately and arguably has been getting worse. When the religious freedom commission released its annual report, it named 13 nations the State Department was urged to designate “countries of particular concern” for their “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations.” 

This was a collection of usual suspects: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. America may lack leverage in many of these places, but some are our friends — aren’t they? 

A member of the determined band of religious freedom advocates around Washington is Thomas F. Farr, a retired American diplomat who teaches religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and heads a program on religion and foreign policy at a university-affiliated think tank. He is author of a book, “World of Faith and Freedom” (Oxford University Press, $29.95), detailing his experiences and conclusions as first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom during the Bill Clinton-George W. Bush years. 

What he found then was what apparently exists today — opposition ranging from indifference to hostility at the upper reaches of the administration combined with resentment by the State Department bureaucracy toward something it neither asked for nor welcomed. Plus, he is convinced, a strong dose of secularist suspicion regarding anything having to do with religion. 

As Farr, a convert to Catholicism, views it, this is a bad mistake. America should be pressing the cause of religious freedom in the world for two powerful reasons: concern for justice and human dignity, and self-interest. 

As to the first, Farr cites a Pew Forum study showing 70 percent of the world’s population now living in countries with severe restrictions on religious freedom, including humiliation and even torture of religious minorities and mainstream reformers alike. “To the extent we can succeed in reducing this kind of abuse, and promoting this kind of freedom, we are advancing social justice and human dignity,” he says. 

And as to the second: “The spread of religious freedom would benefit vital American interests and enhance our national security. It would do so by encouraging the emergence — especially in highly religious societies — of stable democratic regimes.” Among other things, Farr says, such regimes are “far less likely to incubate, nourish and export religion-based terrorism.” 

Religious freedom advocates aren’t asking for a new crusade. They’re asking for smart, steady, enlightened U.S. foreign policy. Not a bad idea. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.