On July 30, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom.
The operating definition for this purpose is found in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Similar provisions are found in several multilateral human rights treaties.
Introducing the report, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton placed the subject in a broader context. She said, “religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies. It’s been statistically linked with economic development and democracy stability.” Without such freedom, she continued, there can be “a climate of fear and suspicion that weakens social cohesion and alienates citizens from their leaders” and thereby “make it more difficult to solve national problems.” Indeed, she asserted that “the absence of religious freedom . . . is correlated with religious conflict and violent extremism.” As a result, the Obama Administration has made such freedom a diplomatic priority.
This report highlights what it sees as key trends in the year 2011: (a) the impact of political and demographic transitions on religious minorities; (b) the effects of conflict on religious freedom; (c) expanded use and abuse of blasphemy laws; and (d) the rising tide of anti-Semitism;
This annual report reviewing the worldwide status of religious freedom is mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988, which also requires the report to designate countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” when they have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” i.e., ” systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”
In this latest report covering 2011, the following eight countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
With respect to China, the report said in 2011 there was a “marked deterioration . . . in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom.” It cited specific restrictions In the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. The report noted that only “groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned ‘patriotic religious associations'(Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant) . . . [could] register with the government and legally hold worship services.” Moreover, “Proselytizing in public or unregistered places of worship is not permitted” and some “religious and spiritual groups are outlawed.” Finally according to the report “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members are required to be atheists and are generally discouraged from participating in religious activities.”
Not too surprisingly China immediately rejected the report’s comments. China said the report was “full of prejudice, arrogance and ignorance” and was “a political tool used by the U.S. Government to exert pressure on other countries, mostly deemed its rivals.”
The importance of religious freedom for the U.S. is evidenced by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and by the U.S. Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of those provisions. This importance also has been demonstrated by the following more recent events:
- The 1988 enactment of the previously mentioned International Religious Freedom Act, which In addition to requiring the annual reports on the subject, created in the Department of State the Office of International Religious Freedom headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
- That same Act also created the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that is required to issue separate annual reports on such freedom. In addition, it is charged to “consider and recommend options for policies of the [U.S.] Government with respect to each foreign country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including diplomatic inquiries, diplomatic protest, official public protest demarche of protest, condemnation within multilateral fora, delay or cancellation of cultural or scientific exchanges, delay or cancellation of working, official, or state visits, reduction of certain assistance funds, termination of certain assistance funds, imposition of targeted trade sanctions, imposition of broad trade sanctions, and withdrawal of the chief of mission.”
- On October 18, 2011, the Department of State established the Working Group on Religion and Foreign Policy that includes representatives of religious groups and other members of civil society. Its mission is to engage in “a continuing dialogue with religious leaders and other members of civil society that informs U.S. foreign policy and fosters common partnerships with the NGO community, including faith-based groups, in support of conflict mitigation and development as well as efforts to promote human rights, including religious freedom.”
I have developed a special interest in Cuban religious freedom, and a subsequent post will review this report’s section on Cuba.