The 11th annual report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says Obama’s recent call for nations to respect “freedom of worship” rather than “religious freedom” allows regimes to claim they are not oppressing certain religions if those faiths exist in a form acceptable to the regime.
“When you start narrowing the discussion, the signal the administration is sending to the international community is that as long as they prop up a few churches or houses of worship (of minority faiths), there isn’t going to be a problem,” Leonard Leo, the chairman of the commission, told USA TODAY.
The report also criticizes the administration for failing to nominate an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
The ambassador-at-large post, which falls under the State Department, is a requirement of a 1998 law that mandated religious freedom be an aim of U.S. diplomacy.
The commission was established to monitor religious freedom and issue an annual report on U.S. efforts in that area. Commission members are appointed by Congress and the White House. It recommends which countries should be named “countries of particular concern” (or CPCs) for egregious violations and suggests penalties.
Among the 13 countries that the State Department has already named CPCs are Burma, China, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. The label requires the administration to consider whether to levy sanctions against the nations.
The 2010 annual report notes that Obama spoke about the importance of religious freedom in speeches in Turkey and Cairo early in his term. But since then, Obama has stopped using the term, it says.
The White House disagreed. “The president has spoken clearly and unequivocally about his support for religious freedom,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Steven Groves, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, said the change in the phrase raises a question about the administration’s commitment to confront regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere, especially in Iraq and Iran where minority Christian and Muslim sects have been oppressed and even attacked.
“The term religious freedom carries with it a certain understanding in the international community that is a much broader right than the freedom of worship,” Groves said.