In American foreign policy, why religious freedom matters

Friday, April 30, 2010

Editor's note: This commentary originally appeared April 29 on the Washington Post's Web site. Reprinted by permission.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report [yesterday] — and the news is grim: Millions of people across the globe face religious persecution, victims of governments that either repress their faith or allow others to do so with impunity.

The report catalogues a litany of horrors from the execution of more than 200 Baha'i leaders in Iran since 1979 to the killing of more than 12,000 Nigerians in attacks and reprisals between Muslims and Christians since 1999 (including 500 men, women and children in a Christian village hacked to death with machetes and dumped into wells earlier this year).

In a refreshing departure from diplomatic gobbledygook, the Commission doesn't hesitate to name names and call for action. The 13 “countries of particular concern” include strategic American allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and economic powerhouse China. The other worst-offenders are North Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, governments that engage in “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

An additional 12 countries are on the commission's watch list: Afghanistan, Belarus, Egypt, Indonesia, Cuba, Laos, Somalia, Russia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Turkey and India — countries with serious abridgments of religious freedom that need to be addressed before conditions worsen. The Egyptian government, for example, has failed to halt the growing violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians and, in other ways, fostered widespread discrimination against minority religious groups, including disfavored Muslims.

To get behind the mind-numbing statistics of people arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed, the commission's report also highlights the individual acts of conscience by believers who defied state oppression of religious freedom — people like Ri Hyon Ok, publicly executed by the North Korean government in June 2009 for distributing Bibles, and Buddhist monks U Chit Phay and U Aung Soe Wai, arrested by Burmese authorities in April 2009 for leading a prayer meeting for the release of the democratic political activist leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

When the commission issues its annual report and otherwise bangs the drum for international religious freedom, the president, secretary of state and Congress are supposed to listen. At least that was the intent when Congress established the commission in 1998 as an independent government body charged with monitoring religious freedom worldwide and making policy recommendations.

But in the realpolitik world of American foreign policy, it remains to be seen how many of the more than 100 policy recommendations in the report will be implemented by the White House and State Department. As the commission puts it, “neither prior Democratic and Republican administrations, nor the current administration, have been sufficiently engaged in promoting the freedom of religion or belief abroad.”

It always helps, of course, to put the media spotlight on violations of religious freedom and hope that the glare of publicity improves conditions for those in detention and prevents further arrests. But any substantive change in behavior on the part of countries engaged in systematic religious persecution will require the kinds of sanctions and other pressures recommended by the commission.

Simply put, taking religious freedom seriously in American foreign policy is not only the right thing to do; it is in our national interest. State repression of religion and sectarian conflict breed violence, instability, terrorism and war itself. Without religious freedom, free and democratic societies cannot be built or sustained — a lesson we are learning the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Religious freedom is who we are (on our best days). It is, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison insisted, our “first liberty” because freedom to follow the dictates of conscience is the fundamental human right on which all others depend.

With all of our flaws and challenges, America is home to the boldest and most successful experiment in religious freedom in history. If we don't advocate for religious freedom in the world community, who will?

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail: