U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

On July 16-18, 2019, the U.S. State Department hosted its Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The opening event was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to emphasize the “importance of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities.” The closing event, also in Washington, D.C. was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.[1]

First Day Activities[2]

After welcoming remarks by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, the participants discussed the opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally. Through a series of plenary sessions, they discussed the necessary building blocks and emerging trends in advancing religious freedom, as well as how religious freedom, international development, and humanitarian aid can work together to advance mutual interests.

Second Day Activities[3]

 There were three separate discussions led by topical experts, civil society actors, religious leaders, academics and working-level government officials on topics such as best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.

At the end of the second day, the White House held a brief reception for some of the Ministerial attendees. One was Cuban Pastor Mario Felix Lieonart, who said, “Pastor, Ramón Rigal, and his wife are imprisoned in Cuba.  Please pray for them and help the people in Cuba. Two other Cuban pastors who were invited for the Ministerial “are not here because the government in Cuba would not give them permission to come. They are Moisés de Prada, president of the Assemblies of God, and Álida León, president of the new Evangelical League of Cuba, which said, “The intention to attend [the Ministerial] was made public, it was a proof of transparency and truth, we have nothing institutionally to hide.” Lieonart added, I am here because I am a refugee in United States.  Thank you for your hospitality for me.” In response to a question from President Trump, Rev. Lieonart said, “Raúl Castro is continuing in power because he is the First Secretary of the Communist Party.  And the new President is not really Cuba’s leader. Castro is the real leader.”

Third Day Activities[4]

Senior government and international organization representatives focused on: identifying global challenges to religious freedom; developing innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and sharing new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs shared their stories. Government delegations were encouraged to announce new actions and commitments they will take to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.

There also were the Keynote Address by Secretary Pompeo, an Address by Vice President Mike Pence and Closing Comments by Ambassador Brownback. The highlights of those speeches follow.

Secretary Pompeo’s Keynote Address

The attendance aat this Ministerial “proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.”

“Here in the United States, our Declaration of Independence clearly states that certain rights are unalienable. There are liberties to which all of mankind, in all places, at all times are entitled. Religious freedom is one of them. Our Constitution puts it in the very first amendment.”

“Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, [helped author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom,“ which states, ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free… No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.’”

“The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms religious freedom or belief as a universal right.”

“Today, we come together to turn our convictions into action. And there’s not a moment to lose. A shocking 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or denied entirely.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news of the Cuban evangelical leaders who registered for this very event to come here to Washington but were not permitted to come. . . . [T]he Cuban government prevented them from . . . [coming] to express their religious freedom. Such is the thuggish, intolerant nature of the current regime in Havana.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented about violations of religious freedom in Iran, Burma and China.

“{L]ookl at what we’ve accomplished as a result of last year’s ministerial.”

“The State Department has established an International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world. It’s already serving good, and its purpose around the world is expanding. . . . We encourage more countries to step up to the plate and donate and contribute to this important cause that can do so much good all around the world.”

Here are other examples. The “United Arab Emirates they hosted the first regional conference in February on promoting religious tolerance in their curricula. . . .  {T]he nations of the Organization of American States unanimously put forth their first ever statement, introduced by the United States, affirming religious freedom in our hemisphere. Along with the United Kingdom, the United States co-sponsored a groundbreaking conference this past November on meeting the needs of vulnerable religious minorities in conflict zones. And several governments have created special ambassadors specifically charged with advancing religious freedom in their country and around the world.”

The State Department “recently commissioned a group called the Commission on Unalienable Rights to generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and across national borders. The commission’s purpose is very simple. We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.”

“In 2019, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for every one of our Foreign Service Officers. We’ve, so far, trained nearly 12,000 employees on how to identify religious discrimination and persecution and how to work closely with faith leaders all across the world. It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom.”

“We should all consistently speak out about abuses of religious freedom. It’s the least that we can do. Today, we have nine statements of concern on countries and issues all teed up. I would ask each of you to sign them in solidarity.”

“Albania, Colombia, Morocco, and the Vatican will host regional conferences in the near future.”

“Thanks to Poland’s efforts, the UN General Assembly has named August 22nd as a special day to remember the victims of religious persecution. Please commemorate it in your home countries too. And we should all keep making the case at the United Nations and in other bodies that religious freedom should be a priority for that institution.”

“But governments alone can’t properly tackle this problem. Our countries need to support civil society groups.”

“I’m very proud to announce today a new effort that’s intended to help us in our goals across the board. We will create the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We hope that this new vehicle – the first every international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring likeminded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom. . . . it will defend the unalienable rights for all human beings to believe – or not to believe – whatever it is they choose.”

“You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together. You can be sure that the United States will be out front defending the God-given, unalienable right of all human beings to worship as they choose.”

Vice President Pence’s Remarks

“Since the earliest days of our nation, America has stood for religious freedom.  Our first settlers left their homes and all they knew for the chance to, as they said, “Begin the world [all] over again.”  They carved protections for religious liberty into the founding charters of our nation and our very earliest laws.  And after our independence was won, the crafters of America’s Constitution enshrined religious liberty as the first of our American freedoms.”

“Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that our precious liberties are not the gift of government, but rather they’re the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.  Americans believe that people should live by the dictates of their conscience, not the diktats of government.”

“Free minds build free markets.  And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well.”

“And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders. And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others.”

“The list of religious freedom violators is long; their oppressions span the globe.” It includes Burma, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.”

“While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities, sadly, are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships.  The truth is, they can and do arise in free societies, as well, not from government persecution, but from prejudice. This is the evil of Anti-Semitism.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019); State Dep’t, Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom Convenes Opening and Closing Events (July 12, 2019). The first Ministerial in July 2018 was discussed in a prior post.

[2] State Dep’t, Day 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 16, 2019).

[3] State Dept, Day 2: Track 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 2: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); The White House, Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Survivors of Religious Persecution (July 17, 2019); Cuban Pastor Denounces Cuban Violations of Religious Freedoms to President Donald Trump, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019); The regime prevents two of Cuba’s leading evangelical leaders from leaving the country, Diario de Cuba (July 14, 2019); We have nothing to hide’: the Evangelical League of Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Day 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Keynote Address at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); The White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial (July 18, 2019). The prior day the Secretary made a similar speech for the presentation of international religious freedom awards. (State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Reception for the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and Presentation of the International Religious Freedom Awards (July 17, 2019).

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

In July 2018, the U.S. State Department held the first ever Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.[1] At the event’s conclusion, the State Department issued various documents that are discussed below.

The Potomac Declaration [2]

After quoting Article 18 regarding religious freedom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Potomac Declaration asserted, “This right is under attack all around the world. Almost 80 percent of the global population reportedly experience severe limitations on this right. Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” Therefore, the Chairman of the Ministerial (Secretary Pompeo) declared: the following:

  • “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
  • Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
  • A person’s conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
  • Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person’s religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
  • Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
  • Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
  • Persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state’s establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination towards adherents of other religions or non-believers.
  • The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  • Religion plays an important role in humanity’s common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect.”

The Potomac Plan of Action [3]

The lengthier Plan of Action also was issued by the Chairman of the Ministerial. It states as follows:

Defending the Human Right of Freedom of Religion or Belief

States should increase collective advocacy and coordination to promote and protect religious freedom and to counter the persecution of individuals because of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Condemn strongly acts of discrimination and violence in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible for such violence, including state and non-state actors.
  • Protect members of religious communities, dissenting members, and non-believers from threats to their freedom, safety, livelihood, and security on account of their beliefs.
  • Respect the liberty of parents to provide their children religious and moral education in conformity with their own conscience and convictions and to ensure members of religious minority communities and non-believers are not forcibly indoctrinated into other faiths.
  • Protect the ability of religious adherents, institutions, and organizations to produce in quantities they desire religious publications and materials, as well as to import and disseminate such materials.
  • Increase international understanding of how suppression of religious freedom can contribute to violent extremism, sectarianism, conflict, insecurity, and instability.
  • Ensure false accusations of “extremism” are not used as a pretext to suppress the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice their faith, or otherwise limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
  • Eliminate restrictions unduly limiting the ability of believers and non-believers to manifest their faith or beliefs in observance and practice, either alone or in community with others, through peaceful assembly, worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Speak out bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora, against violations or abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Confronting Legal Limitations

States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and ensure individuals can freely change beliefs, or not believe, without penalty or fear of violence, and encourage the repeal of provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief.
  • Encourage any state-managed registration systems for official recognition of religious communities be optional (rather than mandatory) and not unduly burdensome, so as to help facilitate the free and legal practice of religion for communities of believers.
  • Allow religious communities to establish freely accessible places of worship or assembly in public or private, to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structures, to train their religious personnel and community members, and to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with their beliefs without government interference.
  • Repeal anti-blasphemy laws, which are inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.
  • Recognize that respect for religious freedom can afford space to religious actors to engage in constructive efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, terrorism and conflict, and to collaborate with non-religious actors on the same.
  • Encourage the development of conscientious objection laws and policies to accommodate the religious beliefs of military age persons and provide alternatives to military service.

Advocating for Equal Rights and Protections for All, Including Members of Religious Minorities

States should promote the human rights of members of religious minorities, dissenting members from the majority faith, and non-believers, including freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Treat all persons equally under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and ensure law enforcement officials take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minorities, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs.
  • Prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in access to justice, employment, education and housing, in personal status and family laws, and in access to opportunities for expression in public forums.
  • Ensure that all people, including religious minority community members, are free from forced conversions, and are entitled to and receive equal protection under the law without discrimination.
  • Respond quickly to physical assaults on persons and the destruction or vandalizing of holy sites or property based on religion or belief, and hold those responsible accountable.
  • Encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
  • Foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities, including migrant workers, to practice their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.
  • Encourage authorities to denounce and condemn public discrimination and crimes targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief or lack thereof.

Responding to Genocide and other Mass Atrocities

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Take immediate action to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.
  • Condemn messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of certain religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors.
  • Take steps to support investigative efforts and work to preserve evidence and document suspected crimes when reports of atrocities arise, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass atrocities, and ethnic cleansing and related crimes, and employ mechanisms to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Consider the needs of survivors and families of survivors of atrocities and provide them assistance and resources to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals in post-conflict areas.
  • Work with willing victims and survivors of mass atrocities to develop and disseminate communications and educational efforts about their experiences, recovery and resilience.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

States should increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of threatened minority religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, and to preserve cultural heritage sites, even those of communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated to other countries. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Adopt and implement policies that introduce or improve inventory lists of cultural sites and objects that promote respect for and protect heritage, including places of worship and religious sites, shrines, and cemeteries, and that take appropriate protective measures where such sites are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction by state or non-state actors.
  • Safeguard heritage sites, and help other governments do so, by offering technical assistance and professional training to relevant officials, as well as provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
  • Assist impacted communities to secure, protect, repair and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites.
  • Encourage participation by the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage, and engage members of religious communities and others, including their leadership, with training on ways to protect their cultural heritage from damage and/or looting.
  • Assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of significance to multiple communities in a conflict zone so as to foster intra- and inter-faith relations and rebuild trust.
  • Raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the significance and history of cultural heritage, by working with and through religious actors and other community leaders.

Strengthening the Response

States should take actions to respond to threats to religious freedom that continue to proliferate around the world. In that spirit, states should consider endorsing the Potomac Declaration and work to:

  • Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for their religious freedom advocacy, affiliation or practice, or for being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.
  • Strengthen rule-of-law, fair trial guarantees, and the institutional capacity to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
  • Provide additional diplomatic resources through the creation of special ambassadorial positions or focal points in foreign ministries, and support collective action through such groupings as the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
  • Train and equip diplomats in the meaning and value of religious freedom and how to advance it.
  • Recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all, by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS’s Sinjar massacre targeting Yezidis, as a nationally or internationally recognized day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution.
  • Allow and support civil society organizations and religious actors in their efforts to advocate for, and organize on behalf of, religious freedom, pluralism, peace and tolerance and related values.
  • Facilitate the creation of domestic forums, or utilize existing groups, where religious groups, faith-based organizations and civil society can meet to discuss concerns about religious freedom at home and abroad, as well as through bodies at the regional level.
  • Encourage government ministries and officials to engage with and listen to the domestic forums regularly, and implement relevant suggestions when possible.
  • Encourage national economic investment projects that foster collaboration and trust building across different communities and demonstrate the economic, societal and individual benefits of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.
  • Train and support religious community actors, including religious actors, to build resilience to and prevent violent extremism and terrorism, which negatively affect religious freedom, by disseminating alternative messages, engaging at-risk community members, and implementing intra- and inter-faith partnerships.

International Religious Freedom Fund [4]

With the U.S. providing coverage for all personnel, administrative and overhead expenses, all of the funds contributed by others would fund the following program activities:

  • Supporting initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief. This encompasses activities such as advocacy initiatives, awareness campaigns, public messaging, community inclusion efforts, conflict prevention
  • Providing assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief for individual needs including, assistance to address threats of violence; medical needs resulting from violent assault; and replacement of equipment damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

Other Actions of the Ministerial [5]

The Ministerial also issued statements about Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups; Iran; Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious freedom Repression; China; Burma; and Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws.

According to the Secretary of State before its convening, this Ministerial was to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial . . . . . . Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for. [The Ministerial] will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

At the conclusion of this Ministerial, the Secretary of State emphasized that “President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies. Ensuring religious freedom around the world is a key priority of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.”

After describing what happened at the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo complimented Vice President Pence’s announcement of the U.S. Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response, and the U.S. International Religious Freedom Fund. Pompeo also announced that the Department was creating a ten-day International Victor Leadership Program for those “working on the frontiers of religious freedom issues” around the world and a three-day workshop Boldline “to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships that promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” Also announced was the then upcoming Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action for religious freedom.

Conclusion

 Although as a member of a Presbyterian Church I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I approached the investigation of this Ministerial with some skepticism and fear that it was a device to promulgate what I would regard as a right-wing approach to religion and Christianity.

However, the above account of the work of the first Ministerial does not support such skepticism.Nor does the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom insofar as it cites to the relevant international standards on the subject. Whether or not its gathered “evidence” or analysis of same meets the same standard is another issue for another day. [6]

Later this month the State Department will hold its second such Ministerial [7] for like-minded governments that have a demonstrated record of advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or governments that have taken significant and meaningful steps to do so; and survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs. This Ministerial will have the following agenda:

  • Discuss opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally, including how such freedom, international development and humanitarian aid can work together.
  • Discuss best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.
  • Identify global challenges to religious freedom; develop innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and share new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Invitations will be extended to

This blog will examine this second Ministerial’s work to see if there is any reason to change a favorable opinion about its work. As always, this blog invites reasoned pro and con comments, especially for topics or perspectives that were overlooked.

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[1] According to the State Department’s Diplomatic Dictionary, a “ministerial” is a “ formally arranged meeting of ministers of various states, such as the Defense or Foreign Ministers of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

[2] State Dep’t, Potomac Declaration (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, Potomac Plan of Action (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Fund: Fact Sheet (July 27, 2018).

[4] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Iran (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on China (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Burma (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws (July 26, 2018).

[5] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019).

[6] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019)

[7] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 16-18 July 2019 (June 21, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019).

 

My Call Stories

Here are my call stories in response to Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s  sermon,“What Is Your Call Story?,” which was the subject of a prior post.  

The sermon drew from the Bible’s account of Isaiah receiving a direct call from God and Zacchae’us having one from Jesus. I never had such a direct call and doubt that I ever will. Instead, as will be discussed, I have responded to various requests by friends and colleagues to do something that upon reflection were calls to service. Such requests often can lead to personal reflection and conversations with pastors and friends to discern whether there has been a call and what your response should be.

The title of the sermon suggests that each of us only has one call story. Yet I have had multiple calls to service and believe that is or should be a common experience. After all the sermon mentions the pastor’s father, Rev. Dr. Henry William Andersen, who had a strong calling to Presbyterian ministry, but upon his retirement from that ministry was perplexed for a while before he discovered a calling to retire and be a friend and counselor to other retired people.

In other words, vocation “implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, . . . vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time and what was a vocation for one period of life may not be appropriate for other period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous.” [1]

Before I joined Westminster in 1981 I had no religious calls to service.

My Calls to Service

Church Leadership [2]

Shortly after I joined the church, I was asked to be an elder of the church. At the time I was surprised that the church wanted someone to serve in that capacity with such limited experience in the church, but I said “Yes” and now regard that as a call to service. This led to service on various church committees—Spiritual Growth, Evangelism and Global Partnerships, the last of which I chaired for ten years. In the process I learned a lot about these different programs and helped shape their missions.

This call was expanded by an invitation I accepted to join the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, an ecumenical Protestant institution, which I served, 1988-1998.

The Sanctuary Movement Lawsuit [3]

While serving as a church leader, I struggled with how I could integrate my new religious faith with an active legal practice as a corporate litigator.

The answer to that struggle emerged in 1985, when the senior partner at my law firm asked me to provide legal advice to a firm client and his church, the American Lutheran  Church (ALC), which was headquartered in Minneapolis and since merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The problem was to help ALC decide what it should do in response to the U.S. Government’s disclosure in a criminal case in Arizona that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and now the (Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE)) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings in ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The result was the ALC joined my denomination—Presbyterian Church U.S.A.—in suing the U.S. Government in federal court in Arizona over what we called “spies in the churches.” In preparation for that case, I had a trip to Phoenix to meet religious leaders involved in the Movement, including Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, who in 1986 was convicted of harboring and transporting illegal aliens and served five years probation before being elected Moderator (the national leader) of my denomination. 

The courtroom work in this case was handed by two excellent lawyers—Peter Baird and Janet Napolitano of the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca (n/k/a Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie)—and after a Ninth Circuit reversal of a judgment for the Government, the court in Arizona granted a declaratory judgment that the U.S. Constitution’s “freedom of religion” Claus of the First Amendment protected churches from unreasonable investigations. (Napolitano, of course, later became U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, the state’s Attorney General and Governor and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now is the President of the University of California.)

Thus, I came to understand that my senior partner’s asking me to provide legal services to the ALC was a call to religious service.

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer [4]

Moreover, at the start of the Sanctuary Movement case, I knew very little about the Sanctuary Movement or refugee and asylum law or what had been going on in Central America. This led to my leaning about this area of the law through a refugee and asylum training program from Minnesota Advocates for Human rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and then volunteering to be a pro bono (no fee) attorney for an asylum applicant from El Salvador. Simultaneously I engaged in research about the Sanctuary Movement and about what had been happening in that country. I then tried the case with an experienced immigration attorney in the Immigration Court in Minneapolis. As was typical at the time, we lost the case, but immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C., which enabled our client to remain in the U.S. with a work permit.

My Pilgrimage to El Salvador [5]

In 1988 I volunteered to handle another Salvadoran asylum case, which was more complicated. As a result, I decided to go to that country in April 1989 with a group from the Washington, D.C. Synod of the ALC through the auspices of the Center for Global Education of Augsburg University of Minneapolis. My purpose was to conduct investigations for this new case and learn more about the country and those objectives were accomplished.

The day we arrived, the Salvadoran Attorney General was assassinated with a car bomb. This produced an intensely tense and dangerous time in the country with her security forces with their automatic rifles stationed throughout the capitol.

Unexpectedly this trip turned out to be the most intense religious experience of my life and a major call to faith and service.

I started to learn more about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass on March 24, 1980, because of his outspoken criticism of his government’s human rights violations. My group visited the beautiful, modern chapel on the grounds of a cancer hospital where he was killed. Across the street was his small apartment. No fancy archbishop’s palace for him. Another stop was at the capitol city’s Cathedral, which was still unfinished due to Romero’s refusal to spend money on the building while so many Salvadorans were being killed and persecuted. His tomb then in one of the transepts was very plain and covered with photographs of people and their written prayers. There were scraps of linoleum on the floor and plain wooden benches for worshippers. On the outdoor steps to the Cathedral women from COMADRES (Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Assassinated) with bullhorns were screaming protests against the latest round of repression by the government. Tears filled my eyes as the words of the Holy Communion or Eucharist echoed in my mind: “My body broken for you.” As a result, Romero became a self-appointed saint for this Protestant believer and I was overjoyed in October 2018 when the Roman Catholic Church canonized Romero as Saint Romero. [6]

Of the many other searing events of my week in El Salvador, another stands out. At the small Lutheran Church of El Salvador, we met an attorney, Salvador Ibarra, who was the one-person human rights office of the church. He spoke of his joy in his work even though such service put his own life at risk and thereby was calling me to continued work as a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Additional Pro Bono Asylum Work [7]

I accepted that call upon my return to the security and comforts of my office in a large law firm in downtown Minneapolis. I helped my second Salvadoran client to obtain asylum.

Thereafter until my retirement from the law firm in 2001, I was such an attorney for other Salvadorans, a young man from Afghanistan, two Somali men, a Burmese man, a young woman from Colombia and a Colombian family, all of whom obtained asylum and at least some of whom are now U.S. citizens.

Teaching International Human Rights Law [8]

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from the practice of law, I audited the international human rights law course at the University of Minnesota Law School, which was taught by friends, Professors David Weissbrodt and Barbara Frey and by Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who became another friend. Thereafter David extended a surprise invitation to me to help them teach the course in the future. I accepted that invitation or call, and from 2002 through 2010 I was an Adjunct Professor at the UM where I taught the chapters on refugee and asylum law and U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations. Along the way I also learned a lot more about other aspects of this large area of law. I am grateful for this call.

Blogging About Law, Politics, Religion and History [9]

One of the reasons I had another retirement (this from teaching) was to research and write about law, politics, religion and history and stumbled onto blogging as a way to do just that. As a result, in April 2011 I started this blog.

My writing about religion has concentrated on the life and witness of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been enriched by reading the Biblical texts and sermons and then thinking and writing about them. I have come to see this as my way of doing evangelism by demonstrating how an intelligent person can have a religious, spiritual life, something I did not believe possible during my 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness before I joined Westminster in 1981.

Another major subject of my blog is promoting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, which grew out of my work on Westminster’s partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed congregation in the City of Matanzas, Cuba, making three mission trips to the island and welcoming Cuban visitors to my church and city.

Thus, I have come to see blogging as another call that I have accepted.

Conclusion

I concur with Rev. Hart-Andersen when he said in his sermon, “ Christian vocation is less about a particular job and more about how we approach that job, less with what career we choose and more about the underlying purpose we sense in our lives and how that purpose manifests itself in whatever we do. . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

Or as noted Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner said, a calling is “work I need most to do and what the world needs most to have done. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [10]

I am eternally grateful to have received, and accepted, these calls to service. My life has been enriched!

==========================

[1] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

[2] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011); My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014), 

[3] The Sanctuary Movement Case, dwkcommentaries.com (May 22, 2011) 

[4] Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer, dwkcommentareis.com (May 24, 2011).

[5] My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989, dwkcommentariess.com  (May 25, 2011); Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 14, 2014); posts listed in the “Archbishop Oscar Romero “ section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—-Topical: RELIGION.

[6] The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018). 

[7] See n. 4.

[8] Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentaries.com (June 30, 2011); Teaching the International Human Rights Law Course, dwkcommentareis.com (July 1, 2011). 

[9] The Joy of Blogging, dwkcommentaries.com; List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: RELIGION

[10] My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014). 

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

=========================================

[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department 

On May 29, 2018, the U.S. Department of State released its 2017 International Religious Freedom Report, which is required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act”) and which details the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 foreign countries and describes U.S. actions and policies in support of religious freedom worldwide.[1]

The State Department says its “guiding principle [in preparing this report] is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible. Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports. To the extent possible, the reports use multiple sources to increase comprehensiveness and reduce potential for bias.”

At the report’s release, introductory remarks were made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (a former Republican U.S. Representative from Kansas and Director of the CIA), followed by a briefing for journalists by Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback (a former Republican U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Kansas). After reviewing these comments, the Report’s discussion of Cuba religious freedom will be covered.

Secretary Pompeo’s Introduction[2]

“This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom is in the American bloodstream. It’s what brought the pilgrims here from England. Our founders understood it as our first freedom. That is why they articulated it so clearly in the First Amendment. As James Madison wrote years before he was president or secretary of state, ‘conscience is the most sacred of all property.’ Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future.”

“Religious freedom is not only ours. It is a right belonging to every individual on the globe. President Trump stands with those who yearn for religious liberty. Our Vice President stands with them, and so do I.”

“Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests. Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press, and peaceful assembly are under attack, we find conflict, instability, and terrorism. On the other hand, governments and societies that champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, and peaceful.”

“So for all of these reasons, protecting and promoting global respect for religious freedom is a priority of the Trump administration. As our National Security Strategy so clearly states: ‘Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society.’ We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future.”

“I am pleased to announce that the United States will host the first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the Department of State on July 25th and 26th of this year. I look forward to hosting my counterparts from likeminded governments, as well as representatives of international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial, we expect, will break new ground. It will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

Ambassador Brownback’s Briefing[3]

The Ambassador mentioned that Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, North Korea  and Iran were “Countries of Particular Concer” and that Pakistan, Russia and Burma also raised serious issues.

Report’s Executive Summary: Cuba Religious Freedom

“The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Communist Party, through the Communist Party’s Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted the government continued to use threats, travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers. In May the government officially informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) [4] noted 325 violations of freedom of religion or belief during the year. CSW reported a “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year compared with previous years, which it attributed to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of the decree outlawing the 2,000 AG churches. The majority of CSW’s reported violations were related to government efforts to prevent members of the human rights organization Ladies in White from attending Catholic Mass, as well as government threats and harassment of members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. Religious groups reported a continued increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects, such as operating before and after school and community service programs, assisting with care of the elderly, and maintaining small libraries of religious materials. Some leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year, pointing to progress made in a pending permit to build a permanent church structure, while some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for them.”” (Emphases added.)

“The Community of Sant’Egidio organized the Paths of Peace, an interreligious meeting, in Havana on October 4 and 5. Leaders of different religions and more than 500 participants attended the meeting, which focused on the importance of welcoming and integrating migrants regardless of their religious affiliation or nonaffiliation.”

“U.S. embassy officials met with ORA officials to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and encourage equal treatment in allowing nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), a government-recognized organization with close ties to the government and comprising most Protestant groups, to discuss its operations and programs. The embassy met regularly with Catholic Church authorities and Jewish community representatives concerning the state of religious, economic, and political activities. Embassy officials also met with representatives from Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Santeria, and various Protestant communities. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In social media and other public statements, the U.S. government continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

The Report’s Comments About Cuban Government Practices[5]

Religious organizations and human rights groups stated the government continued to threaten, detain, and use violence against outspoken religious figures, especially those advocating for human rights and religious freedom or collaborating with independent human rights groups. Security forces took measures, including detentions sometimes accompanied by violence, which inhibited the ability of members of the protest group Ladies in White to attend Catholic Mass. Some members of independent evangelical Christian churches said government authorities closely monitored and detained, for unspecified periods of time, their leadership and family members. Representatives of the Patmos Institute, a religious freedom advocacy organization, said authorities also targeted Christians affiliated with the institute, including through threats, detentions, and expulsions from school and work. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build the first new church built in the country since 1959.”

“Some high level Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious leaders stated the religious freedom environment had improved compared with the previous year; however, some evangelical Christian groups said religious freedom had not improved for their groups. CSW’s annual report stated church leaders from all denominations reported consistent harassment and surveillance from state security and officials responsible for religious affairs. It also stated the government continued to severely restrict public religious events. The CSW report counted 325 violations during the year, compared with 2,380 violations in 2016 and over 2,300 violations in 2015. In its report CSW stated the “significant drop” in the reported cases of violations of religious freedom or belief in the year, compared with previous years, was due to the government’s verbal rescinding in May of a decree that had outlawed 2,000 AG churches. One leader, who stated the situation had improved from the previous year, cited the approved permit to build a new Catholic church in Pinar del Rio Province – the first new church built in the country since 1959.” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, human rights activist Jorge Luis Garcia Perez reported state security agents raided the home of Misael Diaz Paseiro on October 22 and confiscated two Bibles, a number of crucifixes and five rosaries. On November 4, police reportedly beat Diaz, tore his rosaries from his neck, and said ‘in addition to being a counterrevolutionary, you are also a Christian. You should look at us – we are revolutionaries and we don’t believe in your god. Our god is Fidel Castro.’ Diaz was imprisoned on November 22 and reportedly denied visits from a priest and access to a Bible. The Christian Post reported the government charged Diaz with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and sentenced him to 3.5 years in prison.” (Emphasis added.)

“Reverend Juan Carlos Nunez Velazquez, an Apostolic Movement leader, lost an appeal on February 1 to overturn his sentence of one year under house arrest. Police arrested Nunez in 2016 for disturbing the peace because he failed to comply with police orders to reduce the size and volume of the speakers he used during Sunday sermons at his open-air church.”

“According to CSW, in February authorities twice interrogated an Eastern Baptist Convention pastor about his work, members of his congregation, and the activities of his church. The authorities also threatened to confiscate the property; however, at year’s end, the government had taken no action against the church.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW and news sources, on April 27, airport authorities detained and interrogated Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, a 20-year-old student and evangelical Christian and religious freedom activist, upon his return to the country. The authorities informed Llerena Lopez he was being investigated for planning terrorist acts, possessing pornographic materials, and meeting with “terrorist” Cuban exiles opposed to the government. The authorities briefly detained Lopez’s mother, expelled Llerena Lopez from the university where he was a part-time student, and banned him from international travel. On October 2, authorities informed Llerena Lopez he would not be charged with any crimes and rescinded his travel ban; however, the university had not reinstated him at year’s end. CSW quoted Llerena Lopez as saying, ‘After five months of opposition, arrests, being expelled from university, intimidation, threats, and a false accusation, today I can say that solidarity and the dignity of not giving up on principles … triumphed.’” (Emphases added.)

“According to CSW, on November 6, police arrested and briefly detained Leonardo Rodriguez Alonso, a local Patmos coordinator in Santa Clara, without charges. CSW sources said on April 11, Rodriguez’s daughter, Dalila Rodriguez Gonzalez, was fired from her position as a university professor for not being ‘a good influence on students’ and because she ‘could damage their formation.’  According to Rodriguez Alonso, his daughter’s dismissal was revenge for his religious freedom advocacy.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, police physically assaulted members of the Ladies in White, a rights advocacy organization, while they were en route to attend religious ceremonies. On February 19, CSW reported that a police officer punched in the face Ladies in White member Magda Onelvis Mendoza Diaz as she was going to church. On August 13, a police officer in Havana reportedly choked Berta Soler Fernandez, and officers detained her for 24 hours; they subsequently released her without charge.” (Emphases added.)

“According to representatives of several religious organizations that had unsuccessfully sought legal recognition, the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the MOJ to deny the registration of certain religious groups. If the MOJ decided a group was duplicating the activities of another, it denied recognition. In some cases, the MOJ delayed the request for registration or cited changing laws as a reason why a request had not been approved.”

“According to the members of Protestant denominations, some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of ‘house churches’ in private homes; however, most unregistered house churches continued to operate with little or no government interference. A number of religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons, continued to await a decision from the MOJ on pending applications for official recognition, some dating as far back as 1994. These groups said the authorities permitted them to conduct religious activities, hold meetings, receive foreign visitors, make substantial renovations to their facilities, and send representatives abroad. They also said state security continued to monitor their movements, telephone calls, visitors, and religious meetings.”

“According to CSW sources, on September 14, police disrupted an interdenominational Christian service in Santiago; local authorities had previously approved the service. Local authorities said the service was ‘counterrevolutionary’ and threatened to imprison event organizer Pastor Ernesto Lora if he organized a similar event in the future.” (Emphasis added.)

“According to CSW, on April 3, authorities in Las Tunas fined Reverend Mario Travieso of the Apostolic Church 1,500 pesos ($1,500) for building a wall next to his church that the authorities considered too high even though he had received written approval from his neighbors. Prior to imposing the fine, authorities had inspected his house in response to a noise complaint; they told him not to pray or sing with neighboring families.” (Emphasis added.)

“Many religious leaders continued to state they refrained from speaking about overtly political topics. Some said they feared criticizing the government could lead to denials of permits from the ORA, dismantling of religious buildings, or other measures that could limit the growth of their religious groups. The nongovernmental organization Outreach Aid to the Americas (OAA) reported some instances in which evangelical Christians not supporting Communist Party political activities experienced harassment and threats from government employers and educators.”

“According to the OAA, the Central University in Santa Clara expelled an 18-year-old student after he began attending Christian group meetings at the university. The OAA said university officials told the student he was expelled because his beliefs ‘were not compatible with the philosophy taught at the university.’”

“The OAA said from October 2016 to April 2017, the supervisors of an employee in a government-run company in Taguasco reportedly threatened the employee with termination after learning he had joined a Christian church in 2016. The man reported his harassment and threats to his pastor in April.”

The OAA stated in April school administrators had threatened to expel a 17-year-old student “enrolled in a pre-university course at the Ernesto Che Guevara Institute of Santa Clara if he continued to participate in Christian group meetings.”

“In May the government informed the Assemblies of God (AG) it would not proceed with confiscation orders against 2,000 AG churches or demolish a church in Santiago under zoning laws passed in 2015; however, it did not provide written guarantees to this effect.”

“Many religious groups continued to use private homes as house churches to work around restrictions on constructing new buildings. Protestant leaders’ estimates of the total number of house churches for Protestant groups varied significantly, from fewer than 2,000 to as many as 10,000. Religious groups said authorities approved many applications within two to three years from the date of the application, but either did not respond to or denied other applications arbitrarily.”

“Representatives from both the Catholic Church and the CCC [Cuban Council of Churches] said they continued to conduct religious services in prisons and detention centers in some provinces. The Protestant seminary in Matanzas and churches in Pinar del Rio continued to train chaplains and laypersons to provide religious counseling for prison inmates and to provide support for their families. The CCC continued to operate a training facility it opened in 2016, at which it offered courses on chaplain work as well as courses on caring for sacred religious objects, gender and women’s issues, and seminars for international students.”

“Representatives of religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad generally unimpeded to participate in exchanges between local and international faith-based communities.”

“The majority of religious groups continued to report improvement in their ability to attract new members without government interference, and a reduction in interference from the government in conducting their services. According to local observers, in September authorities prohibited a Baptist journalist from traveling with an interfaith group of religious and civil society activists and journalists to a human rights training seminar in Brazil. The journalist’s employer reportedly accused the journalist of selling secret information and of committing treason. Several independent journalists and bloggers reported an increase in government harassment and prohibitions of travel of individuals who questioned government policies.”

“Some religious leaders reported obstacles preventing them from importing religious materials and donated goods, including bureaucratic challenges and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on computers and electronic devices. Several groups said they could import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods. The Catholic Church and several Protestant religious group representatives said they continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship. The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center that sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.”

“By year’s end, the government had not granted the Archbishop of Havana’s 2016 public request to allow the Catholic Church to reopen religious schools and have open access to broadcast on television and radio. The ORA authorized the CCC to host a monthly radio broadcast, which allowed the council’s messages to be heard throughout the country. No other churches had access to media, which are all state-owned. Several religious leaders continued to protest the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.”

“The ORA stated in August the law on associations was being revised, although it did not provide a timeline for when the revisions would be finalized, nor what the changes would be. Members of the AG continued to request the government pass reforms to the law that would validate and legalize the property the church owned, as well as allow the church to build new temples.”

“Several religious leaders said the ORA continued to grant new permits to repair or restore existing buildings, allowing the expansion of some structures and in some cases the construction of essentially new buildings on the foundations of the old. In August an ORA source stated the ORA had granted permission in 2015 for the Catholic Church to build an entirely new church on newly acquired ground in Pinar del Rio Province. The media reported in 2017 the construction was almost complete. Some religious leaders stated the government regularly granted permits to buy properties to be used as house churches, including in some cases when the titleholder to the property did not plan to live there. Other religious groups stated securing permission for the purchase or construction of new buildings remained difficult, if not impossible.”

T”he government continued to prevent religious groups from establishing accredited schools but did not interfere with the efforts of some religious groups to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before- and after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs. The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners. Several Protestant communities continued to offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however the government did not recognize any of these degrees.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the course of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs since their religion prohibited them from political involvement. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses remained ineligible for professional careers in the fields of law, medicine, among others.”

“Church leaders reported the government continued an unofficial practice of allowing civilian public service to substitute for mandatory military service for those who objected on religious grounds. Church leaders submitted official letters to a military committee, which decided whether to grant these exemptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventist leaders stated their members generally were permitted to perform social service in lieu of military service.”

“Some religious leaders said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas. They cited a measure that prohibited churches and religious groups from using individuals’ bank accounts for their organizations, and required existing individual accounts used in this way to be consolidated into one per denomination or organization. Larger, better organized churches reported more success in receiving large donations, while smaller, less formal churches reported difficulties with banking procedures. According to these religious leaders, the regulations allowed the government to curb the scope and number of activities of individual churches and to single out groups that could be held accountable for withdrawing money intended for purposes not approved by the government.”

“Religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs, including assisting the elderly, providing potable water to small towns, growing and selling fruits and vegetables at below-market prices, and establishing health clinics. International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana. Caritas in particular was very involved in gathering and distributing hurricane relief items.”

“According to the Western Baptist Convention (WBC), on July 6, members of a family that occupied a Havana property owned by the WBC more than 30 years ago broke into the WBC’s new office adjacent to where the family lived. The family reportedly stole the WBC’s documents, computers, furniture, and other property and refused to return it to the WBC. The ORA took no action, despite WBC’s requests for ORA’s intervention. In 1992, a court ruled the family’s residency in the property was illegal but did not require the family to leave.”

Conclusion

The Act requires the Secretary of State to make annual designations of counties that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom” as “Countries of Particular Concern,” and on December 22, 2017, then Secretary Rex Tillerson so designated these 10 countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all of which in this Report are so identified.[6]

The Report’s discussion about Cuba surprisingly did not mention the recent annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and instead heavily relied on the annual report of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which seems contrary to the Department’s stated desire to have multiple sources of information. Further research and a separate blog post about CSW seem necessary and then an overall evaluation of these reports about Cuba religious freedom.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 (May 29, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Five things To Know About This Year’s International Religious Freedom Report Release (May 29, 2018); Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018). Earlier reports on international religious freedom by the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are identified in the “Cuban Human Rights” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA. /

[2]  U.S. State Dep’t, Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (May 29, 2018).

[4] Christian Solidarity World claims that it it is independent of any government or political persuasion and says it has a “specialist team of advocates work on over 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, to ensure everyone’s right to freedom of religion or belief is defended, protected and promoted. Our vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone has the right to practice their religion or belief freely.” Its main office appears to be in London with other offices in Brussels, Belgium; Edinburgh, U.K.; Washington, D.C.; Casper, WY, U.S.; and Kaduna, Nigeria. In April 2017 the U.N. granted CSW  Consultative Status allowing it to participate in certain U.N. activities. Its Founder and Chief Executive is Mervyn Thomas, a member of the World Assemblies of God Religious Freedom Commission. (See Thomas, One Church, One Prayer; Williams, Christian Solidarity Worldwide gets UN recognition after lengthy wait (April 20, 2017).)

[5] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017—Cuba (May 29, 2018).

[6] Compare U.S. State Dep’t,  Designations Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Jan. 4, 2018)   with Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (May 28, 2018).  The six additional countries so designated by the Commission were Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.

 

 

Cuba Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom   

On April 25, 2018, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on the subject for 28 countries in the world. Of these the Commission concluded that Cuba and 11 other countries had engaged in or tolerated religious freedom violations during 2017 that were serious and “systematic,  or ongoing, or egregious.”[1]

Commission’s Key Findings About Cuba[2]

According to this report, “religious freedom conditions in Cuba remained poor” with the following Key Findings:

  • “The Cuban government engaged in harassment campaigns that included detentions and repeated interrogations targeting religious leaders and activists who advocate for religious freedom.”
  • “Officials threatened to confiscate numerous churches and interrogated religious leaders countrywide about the legal status of their religious properties.”
  • “The government continues to interfere in religious groups’ internal affairs and actively limits, controls, and monitors their religious practice, access to information, and communications through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment.”
  • “While the Cuban constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, this protection is limited by other constitutional and legal provisions. At the end of the reporting period, 55 religious communities were registered; only registered religious communities are legally permitted to receive foreign visitors, import religious materials, meet in approved houses of worship, and apply to travel abroad for religious purposes.”
  • “The Cuban Communist Party Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) answers only to the Party and so it has broad, largely unchecked power to control religious activity, including approving some religious ceremonies other than worship services, repair or construction of houses of worship, and importation of religious materials.”
  • “Authorities prevent human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities, sometimes using force. Almost every Sunday in 2017, the government prevented members of Ladies in White from attending Mass.”
  • “In a positive development, officials verbally promised the Assemblies of God that the government would not confiscate 1,400 of their churches as it threatened to do in 2015 and 2016.”

Commission’s Recommendations About Cuba to U.S. Government[3]

The Commission also made the following recommendations about Cuba to the U.S. Government:

  1. “Publicly denounce violations of religious freedom and related human rights in Cuba.”
  2. “Press the Cuban government to:
  • “Stop harassment of religious leaders;
  • End the practice of violently preventing democracy and human rights activists from attending religious services;
  • End destruction of, threats to destroy, and threats to expropriate houses of worship;
  • Lift restrictions on religious communities buying property, building or repairing houses of worship, holding religious processions, importing religious materials, and admitting religious leaders;
  • Allow unregistered religious groups to operate freely and legally, and repeal government policies that restrict religious services in homes or other personal property;
  • Allow registered and unregistered religious groups to conduct religious education;
  • Cease interference with religious activities and religious communities’ internal affairs; and
  • Hold accountable police and other security personnel for actions that violate the human rights of religious practitioners, including the religious freedom of political prisoners.”
  1. “Increase opportunities for Cuban religious leaders from both registered and unregistered religious communities to travel to, exchange aid and materials with, and interact with coreligionists in the United States.”
  2. “Apply the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, Executive Order 13818, or other relevant targeted tools, to deny U.S. visas to and block the U.S. assets of specific officials and agencies identified as responsible for violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, including considering responsible officials from the ORA for such measures.”
  3. “Use appropriated funds to advance internet freedom and widespread access to mass media, and protect Cuban activists by supporting the development and accessibility of new technologies and programs to counter censorship and to facilitate the free flow of information in and out of Cuba, as informed by the findings and recommendations of the Cuba Internet Task Force created pursuant to the National Security Presidential Memorandum, ‘Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.’”
  4. “Encourage international partners, including key Latin American and European countries and regional blocs, to ensure violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights are part of all formal and informal multilateral or bilateral discussions with Cuba.”

Conclusion

On May 29, the State Department will release its annual report on religious freedom in every other. country in the world.[4] Thereafter we will examine its comments on Cuba and then analyze and evaluate the two reports’ discussion of Cuba.

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[1] U.S. Comm’n Intl Religious Freedom, USCIRF Releases 2018 Annual Report, Recommends 16 Countries be Designated “Countries of Particular Concern,” (April 25, 2018). The other 11 countries in this category (Tier 2) were Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain,  Egypt India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. The Commission also recommended that the State Department designate the following 16 countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (countries whose government engage in or tolerates particularly severe (or systematic, ongoing, and egregious) religious freedom violations: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The Commission is an unusual quasi-governmental body. See U.S. Commission on International Freedom: Structure and Composition, dwkcommentaries.com (May 29, 2013).

[2]  2018 Annual Report at 148-53.

[3]  Id.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo To Release the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report (May 25, 2018).

 

New U.S. Annual Report on Human Rights Around the World

On April 20 the U.S. State Department released its 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.  Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan wrote the Preface to the Reports and made remarks upon their release while a Special Briefing on the Reports was conducted by Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, the head of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

These three introductions to the Reports will be discussed below, and a future post will review the report on Cuba.

Preface by Acting Secretary of State Sullivan[1]

“We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country.”

“The 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices . . . document the status of human rights and worker rights in nearly 200 countries and territories. These reports are required by U.S. law and are used by a variety of actors, including the U.S. Congress, the Executive branch, and the Judicial branch as a factual resource for decision-making in matters ranging from assistance to asylum.”

“The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that corrupt and weak governance threatens global stability and U.S. interests. Some governments are unable to maintain security and meet the basic needs of their people, while others are simply unwilling. States that restrict freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly; that allow and commit violence against members of religious, ethnic, and other minority groups; or that undermine the fundamental dignity of persons are morally reprehensible and undermine our interests. The Governments of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result.”

“Our foreign policy reflects who we are and promotes freedom as a matter of principle and interest. We seek to lead other nations by example in promoting just and effective governance based on the rule of law and respect for human rights. The United States will continue to support those around the world struggling for human dignity and liberty.”

Remarks by Acting Secretary of State  Sullivan[2]

The Acting Secretary noted that this was the 42nd year of such reports, which “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad.”

“Promoting human rights and the idea that every person has inherent dignity is a core element of this administration’s foreign policy. It also strengthens U.S. national security by fostering greater peace, stability, and prosperity around the world. The Human Rights Reports are the most comprehensive and factual accounting of the global state of human rights. They help our government and others formulate policies and encourage both friends and foes to respect the dignity of all individuals without discrimination.”

“This year, we have sharpened the focus of the report to be more responsive to statutory reporting requirements and more focused on government action or inaction with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, each executive summary includes a paragraph to note the most egregious abuses that occurred in a particular country, including those against women, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and members of religious minorities.”

Sullivan then had comments about some countries “with the most egregious human rights records:” Syria, Burma, North Korea (DPRK), China, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. He concluded by noted three countries with improvements: Uzbekistan, Liberia and Mexico.

Briefing by Ambassador Kozak[3]

Responding to a journalist’s question whether the U.S. issuance of this report could be regarded as hypocrisy because of U.S. human rights problems, the Ambassador said that this would be an unfounded charge. The report criticizes some country’s revoking licenses of media that criticize the government and even killing journalists; the U.S. does not do that. He also said the U.S. has laws to protect foreigners from being returned to countries where they are likely to face illegal persecution.

Nozak rejected the notion that the report was weakened by President Trump’s calling the U.S. press an enemy of the people and suggesting changing U.S. libel laws to protect politicians like him from unfounded reporting. In contrast he said independent journalists in Cuba “are routinely slapped around, they also get called names, “

This year’s report omitted a special section on women’s reproductive rights because it is not a term derived from an international treaty or from the U.S. statute requiring these annual reports; the latter refers to coerced family planning, coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. In addition, the new U.S. report has a hyperlink to a WHO report on the subject.

Kozak rejected the notion that this report was undercut by President Trump’s meetings with leaders of countries with poor human rights records.

The U.S. as a matter of policy supports NGOs around the world  that are working to improve human rights.

For  North Korea, the U.S. is concerned about the nuclear issue and about human rights. The report “pretty starkly [discusses] the kinds of abuses, and over the last year or two, we’ve supported . . . a commission of inquiry on North Korea, we support NGOs that are working on North Korea and exposing the human rights abuses that occur in the camps there and so on. But some of the stories that are contained in the report are just overwhelming. There’s one about 11 people who were arrested for supposedly making a pornographic film and they were executed by shooting anti-artillery weapons at them, and then they brought out tanks and ran over the bodies, and this is supposed to be a civilized country.”

The Preface to the report calls China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as “forces of instability.”  This is not a defined term, but refers to situations where internal actions generate international problems like refugee flows and humanitarian crises.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface to Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2017 (April 20, 2018).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Briefing on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018).