“What Is a Reformed View of Politics?”

This is the title of the sermon by Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, on Reformation Sunday, October 28.[1] Below are photographs of Rev. Hart-Andersen and the Westminster Sanctuary.

 

 

 

As noted in other posts, every Westminster worship service is divided into the following three sections: Preparing for the Word, Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word. Here are some of the elements of the first two sections of this service.

Preparing for the Word

The service was opened by the stirring Prelude: “Marche en Rondeu” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and “Trumpet Tune in D Major” by David N. Johnson that were played by Douglas Carlsen (trumpet, Minnesota Orchestra), Jeffrey Gram, timpani; and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Rev. David Shinn, Associate Pastor, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “Eternal God, we confess we keep you at a distance to pursue our own way. We forget your mercy is waiting for us as we close our hearts to you. Whisper the offer of your grace once more to us, and wash away all the things we have done and left undone. Make a new way for us to live in humility, showing love to others and to you. May we be forgiven as we confess our shortcomings, and renewed by your faithfulness, courageous in our pursuit of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Listening for the Word

The Scripture Readings

Genesis 17: 1-8 (NRSV):

  • “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;  walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’”

Matthew 1: 1-6a, 17 (NRSV):

  • “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
  • Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
  • And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,
  • So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”

The Sermon[2]

“Scripture is concerned with history, and we should be, as well.  If we are not, as George Santayana famously observed, we ‘are condemned to repeat it.”

“That warning came to mind yesterday as we heard about the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Anti-Semitism has spiked in America; the number of hateful incidents directed at Jews rose last year by 57%. Something is going wrong in our midst.”

“Political discourse hasn’t helped. When Neo-Nazis march and rally and are not clearly and resoundingly denounced by our leaders, that sends signals to those with hate in their hearts. If we forget the long history of bigotry and violence against Jews, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of injustice and violence against indigenous people in this land, we will repeat it.”

“If we forget the long history of the enslavement of African people in America and violence directed against them and their descendants, we will repeat it. If we forget the long history of mistreatment and violence against women and immigrants and people of differing sexual orientation and identity we will repeat it. “

“Our faith is rooted in history. Scripture goes out of its way to show the connections from one generation to another, to weave the threads of memory and experience, of joy and lament, through the long years of the human story. Scripture wants us not to forget.”

“When the Bible includes lists of the generations, as we heard in Matthew’s gospel, that precede us, it does so to remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of meaning. We are not alone. We are not the first to struggle with what it means to confront the baser impulses of the human heart, or to live in fractured community, or to seek out a God who can sometimes seem distant.”

“The gospel of Matthew opens with a recitation of the generations that stretch from Abraham through David. Fourteen generations. Then another fourteen up to the time of Babylonian exile. Then fourteen more to the birth of the Messiah.”

“Matthew doesn’t mention women in the genealogy, except when it’s necessary to bridge a gap from one generation to another. A man who cannot produce an heir with the correct lineage has to rely on an outsider woman. Then Matthew includes them, otherwise the entire biblical story would come to an abrupt end. It’s the patriarchy’s grudging way of acknowledging that women matter in the story.”

“What would it look like to extend the telling of the generations, from Jesus on…Paul, Lydia, Origen, Perpetua and Felicity, Monica, the desert mothers and fathers, St. Columba…up to the time of the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.”

“Then Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Waldo, Julian of Norwich, Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila…and on to the time of the Protestant Reformation. Then Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, our Presbyterian ancestor, Beza, Knox. Four of them are enshrined in our windows, once again suggesting there were no women involved. There were. We should have four other windows with Marie Dentiere, Marguerite de Navarre, Argula von Grumbach, and Olympia Morata – ancestors from that era and leaders in the faith.”

“The generations continue with Bartolomé de las Casas, John Winthrop, John Wesley, Chief Joseph, Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Sitting Bull, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gene Robinson. Who would you put into that lineage?”

“We’re all linked by the flow of history, passing along the wisdom of the ages, the stories of pain and suffering, the moments of redemption. We’re not making up our faith as we go along. We’ve received it and are carrying it forward, to the generations that follow. We are stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.”

“It’s Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the stream of Christian history in which we stand as Protestants. We open with John Calvin’s hymn and will close with Martin Luther’s. It’s also nine days before an election that has highlighted and heightened tensions among us. We’re anxious in America, and afraid. The divisive rancor is endless and exhausting. Our politics are tearing us apart.

“ In the midst of the chaos in which we find ourselves, our faith, our Protestant, reformed faith, can help us navigate the politics of these times in which we live.”

“”Do Politics Belong in Church?’  the cover of a recent issue of a Christian journal asks. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who conspired against Hitler, has a response. ‘As much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle,’ Bonhoeffer says, ‘Nonetheless, even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for their neighbor.’ (Sojourners, p. 19, Feb 2018)”

“If we want religion that doesn’t engage in politics – not partisan politics, but the kind of politics that involves ‘standing up for our neighbors’ on the receiving end of hatred and poverty, prejudice and violence – if that’s what we want to avoid, then we had better find another savior.”

“What’s a reformed, or Presbyterian, view of politics? The response to that question begins with the notion of covenant, which we learned from the Jews. Covenant refers to the bond between God and humanity. God promises never to abandon humankind; that bond becomes the model for all human relationships, including between two people, or in a family, or in the community, or in the relationship between rulers and people, between government and citizens. Politics, in the Presbyterian understanding, is based on God’s call to life in covenantal community.” (Emphasis added.)

“Covenant goes back through our biblical ancestry to Abram. When God establishes a covenant between them, Abram becomes Abraham. He’s given a new name; that’s what happens when someone comes into covenant with God. That’s what was happening in the Tree of Life Synagogue yesterday. When the shooting started they were in the midst of the naming ritual for a new baby, marking the start of that child’s covenantal life with God.”

“For Abraham the new name as he comes into covenant with God is also a sign that he will be the father of a long line of descendants – the very line that stretches through the Hebrew people to the Messiah, and then on through the early church, and to Roman Catholicism, and to the Reformation and into our time.”

“Covenant theology of the Presbyterians played a key role in the development of democracy in America. H. Richard Niebuhr writes that for Presbyterians,

  • ‘The world has this fundamental moral structure of a covenant society and that what is possible and required in the political realm is the affirmation and reaffirmation of humanity’s responsibility as a promise-maker, promise-keeper, a covenanter in universal community.’ (Quoted in “The Concept of Covenant in 16th and 17th Century Continental and British Reformed Theology” in Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition, Donald K. McKim, ed. [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1992], p. 95)

Three dimensions of covenant have particular relevance for American democracy today.” (Emphasis added.)

“First, covenant life is inclusive. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek,’ the Apostle Paul writes,

  • ‘There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the covenant.’(Galatians 3:28-29)” (Emphasis added.)

“America was established with that covenant principle of inclusivity enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, when it states ‘that all men’ – all human beings we would say today – ‘are created equal (and) endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ All are included because all have the same rights and are equal before the law.”

“Democracy depends on inclusivity. That principle is under assault today. Some appear to be created more equal than others. The growing gap between those with power and resources and those without such privilege runs counter to the biblical admonition to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Racism destroys the promise of community. Differing treatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system betrays the assurance of equal rights. The true measure of the success of a society is not how well those at the top are doing, but how well the most vulnerable are faring.”

“Covenantal politics is inclusive.” (Emphasis added.)

Second, covenant life affirms the full humanity of every person. In the biblical account of creation the earthling is made in the image of God. That assertion means that every human being is of the same value and has something to contribute. That fundamental claim undergirds democracy – that all have equal access to participation in the political process and equal access to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”’ (Emphasis added.)

“When Sojourner Truth in 1851 stood up for her full humanity [and said[:

  • ‘And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ Delivered 1851; Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio) “

“Democracy depends on seeing the worth of every person. That principle is under assault today. The rise of hate crimes against Jews and Muslims eats away at their full humanity. Immigrants and refugees are treated as unworthy and their full humanity is implicitly questioned. More than three million people who have served their sentences cannot vote because of a felony on their record and their full humanity is not restored to them. This week the government proposed new rules that would deny the full humanity, even the existence, of more than one million people who identify as transgender.”

Covenantal politics affirms the full humanity of every person.” (Emphasis added.)

“Finally, covenant life requires truth-telling. In John’s gospel Jesus says, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’” (Emphasis added.)

“The Declaration of Independence speaks of ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident.’ Democracy requires a shared understanding of the truth. Without it there is no trust and the democratic system cannot function without trust.”

“In 1788, Presbyterians in New York and Philadelphia, fresh from helping write the U.S. Constitution, sat down and wrote a set of Principles of Church Order. Among them was this phrase: ‘Truth is in order to goodness,’ meaning truth-telling leads to good behavior.“

“They went on to say, ‘No opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level…We are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty.’ (F-3.0104 in PCUSA Book of Order)”

“Democracy depends on telling the truth, especially by those in power. That principle is under assault today. Conspiracy theories displace reality, facts become whatever is convenient in the moment, and lies masquerade as truth. When the truth goes missing, people suffer, and trust soon dissipates – and to live in covenant with one another trust is needed.”

Covenantal politics requires truth-telling,” (Emphasis added.)

“We are at a pivotal moment in our nation. Our democracy is fraying. Fear abounds. Violence simmers all around us and occasionally breaks through the surface. Trust has been depleted. Rhetoric works against the values and principles on which our democracy depends.”

“But we are a people rooted in history. We remember other times when the nation was threatened from within. And we overcame. ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ‘President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address even as the Civil War continued to rage,

  • ‘Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…and…do all which may achieve…a just and lasting peace among ourselves.’”

“Those words express a politics of biblical covenant, where we are bound together and committed to the welfare of one another. If the nation could find its way back from the brink in that perilous and violent time, surely we can work our way out of the current predicament in which we find ourselves.”

“Democracy is a covenantal form of politics, and for it to be healthy requires participation. We need to do our part; we are responsible for one another. Voting is not merely a right; it’s the duty and responsibility of citizens in a democratic nation. Peaceful political engagement expresses and embodies and brings to life the promise of democracy.”

“Let us not forget that we are people of faith, rooted in history, in covenant with God and with one another, carrying on the hope of generations before us, even as we stand ready to hand that hope on to those who follow us.”

“In the end, we can trust that God’s grace and mercy, God’s justice, and God’s love will prevail, and we shall overcome.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

I usually ignore the biblical references to generations and descendents. They seem so boring and useless. This sermon, however, let me see that the previous generations of figures in the Bible plus my own ancestors remind me that I am not alone. As the sermon says, such references “remind us that we do not exist in a vacuum. We are “tethered to a people and to values and to narratives of memory.”

We are “stewards in our time of the hope at the heart of our faith.” This is another passage of the sermon that made an impact on me. I had not thought of being a steward for the short time of my life of a belief that was passed on to me so that the belief may be carried forward in time after I am gone.

I also never had thought of being a member of a covenantal community in the U.S. involving everyone who is here right now. Yet I certainly have believed that life in the U.S. is or should be inclusive recognizing the full humanity of everyone.

This also means that democracy “ is a covenantal form of politics” requiring my participation.

Finally I am reminded that retrieving and studying the Scriptures and the sermon and then writing about them provide deeper and more enriching insights. I urge others to do the same.

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[1]  The bulletin for the service is online.

[2] Sermon, What Is a Reformed View of Politics? (Oct. 28, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[3] The opening hymn that sometimes is attributed to John Calvin was “”Greet Thee, Who My sure Redeemer Art.” https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/624

 

The closing hym, “Sing Praise to God Who reigns Above” is not attributed to Luther. https://hymnary.org/hymn/GG2013/645

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

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On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.

Latest U.S. Reports on International Religious Freedom

Annually the U.S. Department of State, pursuant to statutory authorization, releases a report on the status of religious freedom in every country in the world.[1] In addition, the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom releases annual reports on the same subject for selected countries.[2]

It should be noted at the outset that these two agencies are not seeking to impose on the rest of the world the U.S. constitutional prohibition of the “establishment of religion” or of “abridging the free exercise [of religion].” [3] Instead the agencies reports rely upon this definition of the freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.[4]

The post will review the latest State Department report on this subject for all 194 other countries in the world and the Commission’s latest report on 29 countries plus one large region (Western Europe).[5]

Latest State Department Report

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After emphasizing the importance of religious freedom, the State Department’s May 20, 2013, report “tells stories of courage and conviction, but also recounts violence, restriction, and abuse. While many nations uphold, respect, and protect religious freedom, regrettably, in many other nations, governments do not protect this basic right; subject members of religious minorities to violence; actively restrict citizens’ religious freedom through oppressive laws and regulations; stand by while members of societal groups attack their fellow citizens out of religious hatred, and fail to hold those responsible for such violence accountable for their actions.”

The report continues.”The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom. These causes include impunity for violations of religious freedom and an absence of the rule of law, or uneven enforcement of existing laws; introduction of laws restricting religious freedom; societal intolerance, including anti-Semitism and lack of respect for religious diversity; and perceptions that national security and stability are best maintained by placing restrictions on and abusing religious freedom.”

Highlighted for concern by the report were “[l]aws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive. Numerous governments imposed such undue and inappropriate restrictions on religious groups and abused their members, in some cases as part of formal government law and practice.” Another concern was the “use of blasphemy and apostasy laws.” They “continued to be a significant problem, as was the continued proliferation of such laws around the world. Such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”

The report documented “a continued global increase in anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial and glorification remained troubling themes, and opposition to Israeli policy at times was used to promote or justify blatant anti-Semitism. When political leaders condoned anti-Semitism, it set the tone for its persistence and growth in countries around the world. Of great concern were expressions of anti-Semitism by government officials, by religious leaders, and by the media.”

According to the report, “Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Government policy that denies citizens the freedom to discuss, debate, practice, and pass on their faith as they see fit also undercuts society’s ability to counter and combat the biased and warped interpretations of religion that violent extremists propagate. Societal intolerance increased in many regions during 2012.”

Finally the report said, “Governments exacerbated religious tensions within society through discriminatory laws and rhetoric, fomenting violence, fostering a climate of impunity, and failing to ensure the rule of law. In several instances of communal attacks on members of religious minorities and their property, police reportedly arrested the victims of such attacks, and NGOs alleged that there were instances in which police protected the attackers rather than the victims. As a result, government officials were not the only ones to commit abuses with impunity. Impunity for actions committed by individuals and groups within society was often a corollary of government impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the Department’s statutory obligation to designate “Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs), i.e., those countries that are considered to commit “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the Act. The term ‘‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom’’ means systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as: (a) torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; (b) prolonged detention without charges; (c) causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction or clandestine detention of those persons; or (d) other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

Accordingly the report re-designated the following eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.[6]

Latest Commission Report

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Under the authorizing statute, the Commission is required to designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPC) (or “Tier 1 Countries”) those that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom.

In its latest report, issued on April 30, 2013, the following 15 countries were so designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Ubekistan (all of which had been designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department the prior year) plus Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The Commission also designates some countries as “Tier 2 Countries,” i.e., countries on the threshold of Tier 1 status, i.e., when their “violations . . . are particularly severe” and when at least one, but not all three, of the criteria for that status (“systematic, ongoing and egregious”) is met.

The latest report designated the following eight countries as Tier 2: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.[7]

The latest report also discussed six other countries (Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Ethiopia, Turkey and Venezuela and one region (Western Europe) that it monitored during the year. At first glance the monitoring of Western Europe seems anomalous, but here are the topics of concern to the Commission:

  • Restrictions on religious dress (full-face veils) in France and Belgium.
  • Failure in Sweden, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Poland, Norway and Iceland to exempt religious slaughter of animals from laws requiring prior stunning of the animals.
  • Suggestions in Germany and Norway that religious circumcisions of male children were illegal.
  • Restrictions on construction of Islamic minarets in Switzerland, and the lack of an official mosque in Athens, Greece.
  • “Incitement to hatred” and other laws in almost all European states that can be used to restrict expression of religious beliefs.
  • Reluctance in many European states to provide accommodation of religious objections to generally applicable laws.
  • Measures in France, Austria, Belgium and Germany against religious groups perjoratively characterized as “cults” or “sects.”
  • Societal intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion or belief such as towards Muslim women with full-face veils, Jewish people and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It should also be noted that the Commission sometimes takes an adversarial position vis-à-vis the U.S. State Department. For example, on April 30, 2013, when the Commission released its latest report, its simultaneous press release recommended that the Department designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” the seven additional countries the Commission had placed in Tier 1 as noted above.

When the Department failed to do so in its May 20th report, the next day the Commission issued a press release criticizing the Department for failure to make additional CPC designations since August 2011 and to do so for the same seven additional countries.

Conclusion

Because of my personal interest in Cuba, including its religious freedom, a subsequent post will compare and contrast the two reports regarding that country.

Such a comparison, in my opinion, will show that the State Department’s reports are more balanced and fair at least with respect to Cuba.


[2]  Id. § § 202, 205. The fascinating structure and composition of the Commission will be the subject of a future post.

[3]  U.S. Const., First Amend.

[5] A prior post examined the prior State Department report.

[6] The State Department report noted that it considers the recommendations of the Commission on CPCs, but that the Secretary of State makes the final decision on that issue. The Department’s report thereby implicitly rejected the Commission’s recommendation for an additional seven countries to be so designated.

[7] Previously the Commission called this group the “Watch List of countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold, but require close monitoring.” According to the Commission, the “Watch List provides advance warning of negative trends that could develop into severe violations of religious freedom, thereby providing policymakers with the opportunity to engage early and increasing the likelihood of preventing or diminishing the violations.”

 

Latest U.S. Report on Human Rights Around the World

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On Friday (April 19th), the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.[1]

In his Preface, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “It is in our interest to promote the universal rights of all persons. Governments that respect human rights are more peaceful and more prosperous. They are better neighbors, stronger allies, and better economic partners. Governments that enforce safe workplaces, prohibit exploitative child and forced labor, and educate their citizens create a more level playing field and broader customer base for the global marketplace. Conversely, governments that threaten regional and global peace, from Iran to North Korea, are also egregious human rights abusers, with citizens trapped in the grip of domestic repression, economic deprivation, and international isolation.”

Therefore, Kerry continued,” we advocate around the world for governments to adopt policies and practices that respect human rights regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, race, sexual orientation, or disability; that allow for and honor the results of free and fair elections; that ensure safe and healthy workplaces; and that respect peaceful protests and other forms of dissent.”

In so doing, Kerry acknowledged that “from our own experience [we know] that the work of building a more perfect union – a sustainable and durable democracy – will never be complete.”

The Introduction to the Report highlighted these five developments from 2012.

  1. Shrinking space for civil society activism around the world. Active participation of civil society in determining policies for the society is an important part of human rights. Yet in 2012, many governments “continued to repress or attack the means by which individuals have the ability to come together, air their views, and put forward their own proposals.” Mentioned specifically in this regard were Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Egypt, Bangladesh and China. [2]
  2. The ongoing struggle by people in the Middle East and North Africa for democratic change. Although there were some encouraging changes in this region, there also was “erosion of protections for civil society, sexual violence against women, violence against and increased marginalization of members of religious minorities, and escalating human rights violations.” This was most pronounced in Syria, but significant problems in this regard were seen in Bahrain and Egypt.
  3. Steps toward emerging democracy and a tentative opening for civil society in Burma. In 2012 Burma “continued to take significant steps in a historic transition toward democracy.” These changes are “the result of hard work by the Burmese people and sustained U.S. and international pressure to reform.” This transition, however, is not yet complete. Much work remains to be done.[3]
  4. The game-changing nature of information and communication technologies, in the face of increased suppression of traditional media and freedom of expression.  New technologies have made information more widely available throughout the world. Yet some governments seek to stop the free press. The world-wide number of journalists killed or imprisoned increased. Some governments used counter-terrorism as a “pretext for suppressing freedom of expression.”  Others endeavored to restrict internet freedom. Ecuador was cited as an example of a state where the president publicly criticized specific journalists and encouraged lawsuits to be brought against them, where a ban was instituted on press coverage favoring one candidate, philosophy or political theory and where the government used legal pretexts to harass and close several media outlets.[4]
  5. The continued marginalization of and violence against members of vulnerable groups. Too many governments “continue to persecute, or allow the persecution of, members of religious and ethnic minorities; women; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people; people with disabilities; migrants; and members of other vulnerable populations, including tribal communities.” Anti-Semitism in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America was specifically mentioned as a problem.

These reports have been prepared by the State Department pursuant to a 1961 federal statute. Since then other federal statutes require U.S. foreign and trade policy to take into account countries’ human rights and worker rights performance.

Since 1976 a Coordinator of Human Rights (later upgraded to an Assistant Secretary) in the Department of State has the overall responsibility for preparing these reports based upon information from U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, foreign government officials, nongovernmental and international organizations, published reports, foreign government officials, jurists, the armed forces, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, and labor activists.


[1]  News of the Report in the U.S. media has been virtually nonexistent. Here is the New York Times article on the Report.

[2] On April 21st China responded to the U.S. criticism with “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2012.” This year, the Chinese report focused on U.S. gun crime, citing “astonishing casualties”; growing poverty in the U.S. and a wide wealth gap; and America’s overseas wars. It also singled out what it said was low voter participation in U.S. elections and the detention of terrorism suspects in Guantánamo.

[3] Similar recent reports about Burma come from Human Rights Watch, Former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a Burmese Buddhist. On the other hand, the government continues to declare amnesties and release political prisoners, and we continue to be inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi’s, whose  acceptance in 2012 of her Nobel Peace Prize of 1991 was the subject of an earlier post.

[4] Ecuador’s wide-ranging measures to squelch hostile journalism have been the subject of persistent and detailed criticism by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and as discussed in a prior post Ecuador in retaliation has mounted, and continues to mount, a campaign to try to weaken the Commission and thereby its criticism of Ecuador.