Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
Select Page

3/22/11 World (DeseretNews) – In Cairo earlier this month, Christians and Muslims stood together in Tahrir Square to call for regime change in Egypt. Just days later, however, deadly strife between Christians and Muslims on the outskirts of Cairo left at least a dozen killed, hundreds injured and a Coptic church in ashes.

Earlier this year in Pakistan, a provincial governor and a cabinet minister were assassinated for their vocal opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws and the brutal vigilante enforcement of those laws.

Around the world, sectarian conflict and violence — too often condoned tacitly by government authorities — appears to be increasing. And too often this strife is taking place in countries that depend significantly on U.S. assistance of one form or another.

Morocco is a good example. Last year the Moroccan government summarily deported hundreds of Christian humanitarian workers without due process because of their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, Morocco continues to receive nearly $700 million from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government-sponsored foreign development effort to support good governance.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

IRFA attempted to enshrine within U.S. foreign policy the principle of religious freedom as a metric for diplomacy and aid. It did so by creating an ambassador-at-large to advise the president and the Secretary of State, as well as a bi-partisan international religious freedom commission.

IRFA derived from fundamental American values. But it also captured an important international security logic. That logic was the realization that countries discriminating against religious minorities, either actively or tacitly, become breeding grounds for extremism. Such policies embolden extremists in opposite ways: some (as in Pakistan) find protection for private harassment behind state-sponsored orthodoxy while some (as in Bahrain) resent the privileged sect to the point of seeking to undermine the regime.

Given the global rise of sectarian conflict and the critical role that fundamental commitments to religious liberty will play in the stability of emerging democracies, it concerns us that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been so diffident about religious freedom.

And it is not just their silence that concerns us. Their behavior demonstrates little interest in fulfilling the purposes of the IRFA. According to Tina Ramirez, Director of Government Relations at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the State Department has neglected to meet its obligations under IRFA to reauthorize stand-alone sanctions against countries noted particularly for violating rights of religious freedom.

This is just one of many examples where the intent of IRFA is being ignored. The position of ambassador at large for religious freedom, for example, has been significantly downgraded. That position — once a direct report to the secretary and the president — will now report to the assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

And there has been no urgency to fill this downgraded position. It took 18 months for President Obama to nominate someone for the post. Although that nominee, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the last Congress, she was not confirmed. Our sources tell us that committee members let the nomination lapse because they were underwhelmed by her qualifications and responses.

Dr. Cook has been renominated and may soon appear again before the Foreign Relations Committee. Committee members, including Utah Sen. Mike Lee, should use those hearings to thoroughly vet Dr. Cook’s qualifications as an effective advocate for reestablishing religious freedom as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Does she have international experience with issues of religious conflict? Does she bring the foreign policy expertise sufficient to be taken seriously by the diplomatic and foreign policy community?

Beyond the vetting of a nominee, the Foreign Relations Committee must use its oversight capacity to examine how faithfully the Obama Administration is enforcing the IRFA’s intent to make freedom of religion a central objective of our foreign policy. Our principles and our security are at stake.