“A wrong is done when government imposes upon its people, by force or fear or other means, the profession or repudiation of any religion, or when it hinders men from joining or leaving a religious community,” says the Second Vatican Council Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).
America was founded on the fundamental principle of religious freedom; it safeguards human dignity and helps define who we are as a people. Indeed, many Americans are descended from immigrants who fled their native lands to escape religious persecution. And it is no accident that freedom of religion is the central freedom in our Bill of Rights.
We in America are blessed; millions of others around the world are not so lucky. Today, entire nations of people are being denied the right to follow their faith in God and practice their religion. Can America afford to look the other way?
The situation around the world is dire. In China, for example, only “official” churches that accept government authority are permitted, while members of “unofficial” churches that refuse to accept a government role in their churches are forced to go underground and risk harassment, arrest, and torture.
In Saudi Arabia, no religious freedom exists at all. The state-sponsored religion is an extreme branch of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, and non-Muslims may not be citizens. Non-Muslim public worship is prohibited, and the government sanctions random arrests, imprisonment, torture, and deportation of the Shiite Muslim minority and non-Muslims engaging in private worship. The estimated 500,000 to one million Catholics and approximately seven million non-Muslims living and working in Saudi Arabia must choose between economic necessity and their faith.
The United States is the nation best suited to lead the fight against religious persecution of any and all religious groups, wherever it is found. But religious freedom often plays second fiddle to other foreign-policy concerns. We must rattle the cages, both of foreign governments and of our own government when it fails to defend the persecuted.
In 1998, Congress realized that the State Department was not paying enough attention to religious freedom in human rights policy and passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which made the promotion of religious freedom an explicit U.S. foreign-policy goal. The IRFA established a permanent ambassador-at-large with an office at the State Department to advance religious freedom.
The Office of International Religious Freedom monitors foreign governments, prepares an annual report on the status of religious freedom worldwide, designates “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), and develops strategies to attack the roots of persecution. The act also created a nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the only federal agency in the world that monitors religious freedom violations and advises the administration and Congress.
But five years later, it’s still open season on Christians and other religious groups in a host of foreign countries. Part of the problem is that religious freedom in many ways is still the neglected stepchild of U.S. human rights programs. A new report issued by the State Department’s inspector general underscores that the Office of Religious Freedom has become an orphan buried in the State Department’s complex structure. The inspector general notes that the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is the only ambassador-at-large who is denied a direct reporting line to the secretary of state, a critical line of communication for getting things done.
Such bureaucratic roadblocks inside our own State Department feed resistance to the religious freedom agenda. For instance, although Saudi Arabia has been a chronic violator of religious freedom, not once has the State Department listed it as a CPC.
And China has made the list four years in a row, but the designation has had no teeth and the situation there is no better. Once a country is designated, our government has flexibility to waive action, impose sanctions, negotiate, or “double hat” preexisting sanctions. In the case of China (and all other designations), it has chosen only the latter.
We can do better. Not only do we have a duty to act, it’s enlightened self-interest. The fight to advance religious freedom serves three important strategic goals: First, protecting human dignity promotes stability. Second, it helps spread democracy. And third, it aids the fight against terrorism by helping combat the growing problem of religion-based terrorism.
To that end, the United States is helping Afghanistan and Iraq to adopt democratic forms of government after years of brutal repression of Muslims and Christians by the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. New threats to religious freedom exist after the toppling of these rogue regimes. The United States has a responsibility to ensure that their new constitutions guarantee religious freedom for all, not establish Islamic, or shari’a, law.
Finally, it’s important to note that we battle not just the usual suspects but also some countries that traditionally have provided for freedom of religion in their constitutions. I mention France as an example, whose citizens are largely Roman Catholic. The French constitution provides for freedom of religion, but a dramatic spike in anti-Semitic incidents occurred in 2002.
In addition, a new French law passed last year puts religious freedom at risk by criminalizing certain religious behavior in the name of protecting France against dangerous “cults.” This misguided policy is bad enough in France. But worse, it provides precisely the wrong model for emerging democracies. We need to press France to do better.
In France, the Middle East, and around the world, the United States must continue to push foreign governments harder to safeguard the basic human right to religious liberty so that all believers are free to follow their faith.