U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom

On September 23, 2019, President Donald Trump did not speak at the U.N. Summit on Climate Change. Instead, after briefly attending that session, he chaired the U.N.’s Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom meeting that was organized by the U.S.[1] After Vice President Mike Pence’s introduction, the President delivered his remarks followed by comments from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

 Vice President Pence’s Remarks[2]

“it is my great honor to be here today with the President of the United States to reaffirm America’s commitment to what the people of our nation have always believed: that every person is endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  And Americans have always believed our first freedom is the freedom of religion.”

“And there’s no better time for a meeting like this on the world stage.  As we gather here at the United Nations, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned.”

“The regime in Iran brutally persecutes Christians, Sunnis, Bahai’i, and Jews. In Iraq, Iran-backed militias terrorize Christians and Yazidis who were nearly wiped out by ISIS’s recent campaign of genocide. The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in the Muslim population.”

“In our hemisphere, the regime of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.  And in Venezuela, the dictator Nicolás Maduro uses anti-hate laws to prosecute clergy, even as his media cronies spread anti-Semitism by trivializing the Holocaust.”

“Communities of faith across the wider world have also faced unspeakable acts of violence in places of worship, shocking the conscience of the world.”

“In October, 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In March, a gunman killed 51 Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  And just a month later, suicide bombers murdered more than 300 Christians during Easter services at three Christian churches in Sri Lanka.”

“These attacks strike at the heart of everything free peoples hold sacred.  And the threats of religious freedom and the attacks on people of faith underscore why President Trump has taken such decisive action, since the very first days of our administration, to build and promote our nation’s proud tradition of advancing religious freedom.  And that continues today.”

“At the President’s direction, the United States created the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, and we’ve provided more than $370 million to aid ethnic minorities in faith communities persecuted by ISIS in Iraq and throughout the region.”[3]

“Earlier this year, at the President’s direction, the Secretary of State held the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, inviting more than a thousand civil society and religious leaders, in 100 different nations, to the largest event of its kind in the world.”[4]

“And last year, at the inaugural ministerial, at the President’s direction, we established the International Religious Freedom Fund, which already has received nearly $5 million in pledges and given over 435 Rapid Response Grants to those persecuted for their deeply held beliefs.  And to date, this effort has helped some 2,000 victims of religious persecution around the world.”[5]

“As the President often says, America is a nation of faith, and we will always stand for the freedom of religion of every person, of every race and every creed, to live, to work, to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.

“And today, giving evidence of his passion for religious liberty, the President will announce additional steps that the United States will take to protect religious liberty and defend people of faith around the world.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

President Trump’s Message[6]

“The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God.  This immortal truth is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.”

“Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world.  Approximately 80 percent of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted, or even banned.”

“As we speak, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis, and many other people of faith are being jailed, sanctioned, tortured, and even murdered, often at the hands of their own government, simply for expressing their deeply held religious beliefs.”

“Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution.”

“To stop the crimes against people of faith, release prisoners of conscience, repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief, protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed, America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts.”

“As President, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been.  Last year, our Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance International Religious Freedom. In this year’s ministerial, Secretary Pompeo announced plans to create the International Religious Freedom Alliance — an alliance of like-minded nations devoted to confronting religious persecution all around the world.[7]

“I’ve appointed a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.  We’re standing up for almost 250 million Christians around the world who are persecuted for their faith.  It is estimated that 11 Christians are killed every day for . . . following the teachings of Christ.”[8]

After reviewing some of the recent violence against religious people and buildings, the President said, “These evil attacks are a wound on all humanity.  We must all work together to protect communities of every faith.  We’re also urging every nation to increase the prosecution and punishment of crimes against religious communities.  There can be no greater crime than that.  This includes measures to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics.  Today, the Trump administration will dedicate an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics.”

“The United States is forming a coalition of U.S. businesses for the protection of religious freedom.  This is the first time this has been done.  This initiative will encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.  And the private sector has brilliant leadership.  And that’s why some of the people in this room are among the most successful men and women on Earth.  They know how things get done and they know how to take care of things.”

“ I want to once again thank all of the survivors in the room for their courage and resilience.  You’re an inspiration to the world.  You remind us that no force on Earth is stronger than the faith of religious believers.  The United States of America will forever remain at your side and the side of all who seek religious freedom.”

“Today, I ask all nations to join us in this urgent moral duty.  We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.  The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”

“It is my high honor and distinct privilege to introduce to you a tireless champion of the freedom of religion and people of every faith in America and around the world, the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

Secretary Pompeo’s Remarks[9]

After thanking the many world leaders at the meeting, Vice President Pence and President Trump, Pompeo said, “The Bible says that ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,  think about these things.’ [Bible, Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)]] And that’s what we are all doing here today.

“As you heard, religious freedom is under threat all around the world.” He then introduced  three individuals who talked about “their struggles on behalf of this first freedom, this important and unalienable right:” Dabrina Bet-Tamraz (Iran), rabbi Faiz Algaradi (Yemen) and Jewher Ilham (China).

Pompeo closed by mentioning “the International Religious Freedom Alliance the State Department announced in July. It is the most ambitious human rights project launched in a generation. We aim to bring together like-minded countries, faith leaders, civil society groups, and international organizations around the world to promote religious freedom in a more consistent, organized, and powerful way. The foundation of the alliance is Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.’”

“So if you’re a country that takes human rights seriously, understanding its many benefits for peace, security, and prosperity, please come join us. If you’re a country that stands for human dignity and for freedom of conscience, please come join us. And if you’re a leader simply moved by the stories you’ve heard from these brave survivors today, come join us. Turn your sympathy for them into freedom for others. Please reach out to our Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.”

“The United Nations is only as strong as its sovereign members determine it will be. Our belief in our principles is only as strong as our confidence to express them. I ask – indeed, I pray – that you will help be a voice for the voiceless by joining the International Religious Freedom Alliance. May God bless the survivors who are here with us today, may God bless the United States of America, and may God bless the nations who have gathered with us here this morning.”

Conclusion

Since the U.S. chose not to attend the U.N. Climate Change Summit, the U.S. possibly believed that it needed to organize another event at the U.N. that day so that it did not appear that the U.S. was avoiding the U.N. and instead that the U.S. had some positive news coverage. It also is another event consistent with the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.

The basics of the Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom are laudable, and it also is true that there is religious persecution in the world today. However, the unspoken political motivation of this presidential administration—appealing to its evangelical Christian supporters—also is apparent, and Democrats need to be cautious in criticizing this event.

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[1] Liptak, Trump will hold session on religious persecution instead of attending UN climate summit, CNN (Sept. 21, 2019).

[2] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[3] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 26, 2018).

[4] U.S. State Department’s Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 21, 2019).

[5]  State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 7, 2019).

[6] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom/New York, NY (Sept. 23, 2019).

[7] E.g., Banks, As religious freedom summit ends, State Department announces new alliance, sanctions, Nat’l Cath. Reporter (July 19, 2019)

[8]  State Dep’t, About Us—Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

[9] State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo at the United Nations Event on Religious Freedom (Sept. 23, 2019). h

U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom

The State Department’s recent 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, while not characterizing Cuba as a Country of Particular Interest or placing it on the Special Watch List, for the worst violators of religious freedom, nonetheless did have harsh words for the island.[1]

Cuban Religious Demography

Keep in mind that although “there is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of [Cuban] religious groups,” the report uses the following estimates of the sizes of different religious groups:

Category Denominations/Groups Number
Christian Roman Catholic (lower estimate, 6,660,0000) 7,700,000
Protestant:
Assemblies of God    150,000
Baptists    100,000
Jehovah’s’ Witnesses      96,000
Methodists      50,000
Seventh-day Adventists      35,000
Presbyterians      25,000
Anglicans      22,500
Episcopalians        6,000
Apostolic Movement        4,000
Quakers        1,000
Moravians           750
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints           150
Other        8,250
Protestant Subtotal    555,000
Christianity Subtotal 8,255,000
Jewish         1,200
Muslims         3,000
Non-religious  2,840,800
TOTAL 11,096,000

In addition, the Report said, “Many individuals, particularly those of African descent, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basisn, known collectively as Santaria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate their total membership.”

The large numbers of different religious groups and of their estimated memberships, in and of themselves, tend to show religious freedom.

U.S. Report’s Executive Summary

“The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  Observers said the government continued to use threats, international and domestic travel restrictions, detentions, and violence against some religious leaders and their followers, and restricted the rights of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom. . . . [The Communist Party’s  Office of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice] continued to use the law on associations to deny official registration to certain religious groups, such as a number of Apostolic churches, or failed to respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.. . . Human rights advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported government harassment of religious leaders increased “significantly in parallel with” the churches’ outspokenness regarding the draft constitution.  According to CSW, some religious groups said the government increased its scrutiny of foreign religious workers’ visa applications and visits.  Some religious groups reported an increase in the ability of their members to conduct charitable and educational projects.  According to the religious advocacy group EchoCuba and CSW, the government gave preference to some religious groups and discriminated against others.”

 U.S. Report’s Methodology

This report purportedly adheres to the Department’s ’guiding principle’ of trying “to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible” and not attempting “to verify independently all information contained in the reports.” (Emphasis added.) But each of  its various paragraphs invariably start with the allegations of violations of this freedom followed by contradictory information. This structure thereby implicitly and improperly gives greater credence to the allegations.[2]

Another legitimate criticism of this country report is its failure to consider the island’s relatively poor economic circumstances, especially with the implosion of Venezuela, which has been the island’s principal ally and financial backer, and the report’s implicitly using as its gauge of propriety the status of churches in the prosperous U.S.

The report on Cuba also fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has had and continues to have various surreptitious programs seeking to undermine the Cuban government, which, therefore, has reasonable grounds to be suspicious of some supposedly religious ventures from the U.S.

Sources of Information

Moreover, most of the adverse allegations come from only two sources: Christianity Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) with headquarters in London and EchoCuba based in Miami, Florida without setting forth any analysis of the credibility of those organizations.

CSW’s website says its “vision is a world free from religious persecution, where everyone can practice a religion or belief of their choice” and that it has a “team of specialist advocates [who] work on over 20 countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief is upheld and protected.” https://www.csw.org.uk/about.htm Another page of the website describes various religious events on the island.

CSW was started in 1977 by Merwyn Thomas, who might have been a Roman Catholic priest and math teacher at Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, Indiana.[3]

EchoCuba, which was founded in 1994 or 1995 and is based in Miami, Florida says that it is “dedicated to strengthening the Cuban church and helping coordinate mission and social efforts from the United States in Cuba. It began as an organization dedicated to supporting the growth of the independent Christian church in Cuba in 1994, by supplying them with medical and humanitarian assistance.” But very little information about the group was uncovered on its own website or through Internet research.

On the other hand, the U.S. report only made the following reference to the Cuban Council of Churches (CIC): “Embassy officials met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches, a government-registered organization with close ties to the government composed mostly of Protestant groups and associated with the World Council of Churches, to discuss its operations and programs.” (Exec. Summary.)

This, in this blogger’s judgment, is a major flaw in the U.S. report as the CIC was founded in 1941 and describes itself as “an ecumenical fellowship of churches and other Cuban Christian institutions, which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior, in accordance with the Scriptures and seek to realize their common vocation for the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The CIC promotes spaces for encounter, celebration, reflection, formation and joint actions of the churches and other Christian institutions, for the service to our people, as a visible expression of the ecumenism to which we are called by God in Jesus Christ.” Today the CIC’s membership includes 28 denominations, 10 fraternal associations and 14 ecumenical movements and centers.[4]

Relevant here is the subsequent statement (on or about July 17, 2019) by the CIC in response to the recent announced intent to create the Evangelical Alliance of Cuban Churches by the Cuban evangelical churches that are not members of the CIC:[5]

We want to reiterate to our people and their churches that the . . . [CIC], as it affirms in its Constitution, works under its motto “United to Serve “which states:

  • “We are a fellowship of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions that confess the Lord Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and seek to realize their common vocation, the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “
  • “Our mission is to provide spaces for meeting, celebration, reflection and formation of churches, ecumenical movements and other Christian institutions, as a visible expression of the unity to which God calls us in Jesus Christ, in the service of our people.”
  • “Encouraging the study, consultation and different areas of service in accordance with its purposes and functions; the cooperation of Christians in order to strengthen fraternal relations; enrich Christian life and witness; develop a sense of social responsibility and encourage participation in tasks of common interest for the evangelizing mission of the Church. “
  • “The Council, without authority over its members to determine issues of doctrine, government or worship, could be a mediating instance, provided that peace and goodness of the Body of Christ is sought, based on the best testimony to the world: the unity of the believers. “

“Therefore, it is not for the [CIC], to rule on doctrinal issues that have been put on the public stage, nor to represent on this or any other issue, before the Cuban people and its authorities, the churches and organizations , members or not.”

“In Cuba all denominations enjoy religious freedom and are equal before the law, therefore each church or religious organization establishes the relations it deems with the authorities, and gives testimony before them and the Cuban people as understood from their understanding of the Faith.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Council of Churches, in adherence to the values ​​that its Constitution proclaims and in its vocation of service, has carried out mediating efforts since its foundation. And it has done so by sovereign decision of its members, from its governing bodies, without supplanting it, any rights of others.”

“On the contrary, in most cases, these efforts have benefited not only the churches and member organizations of the CIC, and in some, all the religious denominations and their practitioners on the island. Suffice it to mention the import and distribution of Bibles, and in the early 90s, their decisive contribution in the cessation of all forms of religious discrimination in Cuba.”

“God calls for unity in Christ our Lord, to serve and bear witness to the Gospel. Since its foundation 78 years ago, the . . . [CIC] has shown its fidelity to this call. Our fidelity is only to Jesus Christ, our Lord. There is no other Lord, neither here in our beloved Homeland, nor outside it, to which we MUST serve and adore.”

“The . . . [CIC] reaffirms its commitment to continue working for the unity of the churches. Serving the people and the nation, seeking together and together the paths of peace, faith and hope, the dignity of the people and the care of Creation, that help us to build and live the signs of the Kingdom of God: equality and love for all and all in the midst of our beloved country.”

Conclusion

For approximately the last 17 years, my Minneapolis church—Westminster Presbyterian Church—has had a partnership with a Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Matanzas, Cuba on the north shore of the island east of Havana, and I have been on three mission trips to Cuba to visit this and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches on the island. In Havana I have visited Ebenezer Baptist Church and its Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and the offices of the CIC as well as the Seminario Evangélico de Teologia in Matanzas. As a result, I have gotten to know pastors and members of these churches and other religious institutions and have had the honor and pleasure to welcome some of them to my church in Minneapolis. On one of my trips, the Westminster group delivered a CD-ROM edition of the Talmud from our friends at Minneapolis’ Temple Israel to a scholar at the main synagogue in Havana, and on another trip we delivered an icon from Minneapolis’ St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church to the new Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Havana. I also have read about religion in Cuba and many of the essays by a Presbyterian-Reformed pastor, Rev. Sergio Arce, as reflected in my blog posts on the subject.

Therefore, I can testify from personal knowledge that despite limited financial and other resources, there is significant religious freedom on the island. In other words, the State Department’s recent report on religious freedom in Cuba paints an erroneous picture.[6]

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[1] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Cuba (June 21, 2019).

[2] State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (“Overview and Acknowledgements”) (June 21, 2019).

[3] Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Wikipedia.

[4] World Council of Churches, Cuban Council of Churches; Cuban Council of Churches (Consejo de Iglesias), About us.

[5] Council of Churches of Cuba, United To Serve (July 2019); The official Council of Churches declares its attachment to the new Constitution and defends that there is ‘religious freedom’ in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 17, 2019).

[6] See the following posts to dwkcommentaries.com: The Cuban Revolution and Religion (Dec. 30, 2011); U.S. Government’s Opinions on Religious Freedom in Cuba (Jan. 5, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the U.S. Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba (Jan. 8, 2012); Cuban Protestant Leader: Cuban Religious Freedom (Apr. 4, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom (Aug. 3, 2012); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. State Department’s Report) (May 25, 2013); Cuban Religious Freedom (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) (May 27, 2013); Other Voices on Cuban Religious Freedom (June 19, 2013);  U.S. State Department’s Latest Report on Cuban Human Rights (Mar. 7, 2014); Other Details about Congressional Briefing by Cuban Religious Leaders Mar. 7, 2014); Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Takes Actions Regarding Cuba (June 26, 2014); Cuban Government Meets with Religious Leaders (Nov. 19, 2014); Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014); The First Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 21, 2015); The Second Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 22, 2015); The Third Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 25, 2015); The Fourth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the Cuban People (Sept. 26, 2015); A Protestant Christian’s Reaction to Pope Francis’ Missions to the Cuban and American People (Oct. 26, 2015); U.S. State Department Statement on Cuban Religious Freedom (July 28, 2016); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (May 28, 2018); Cuban Religious Freedom in the Eyes of the U.S. State Department (May 29, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

The Mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs

The mission of Morocco’s Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs was explicated in a September 2014 speech by its Minister, Ahmed Toufiq, to an Open Briefing by the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee.[1] To the right is his photograph.

Two other representatives of the Moroccan government made more general statements at the briefing: H.E. Mr. Nasser Bourita, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco; and Mr. Yassine Mansouri, Director General of the Directorate General of Studies and Documentation of the Kingdom of Morocco.[2]

This briefing was opened by the Committee’s Chair, Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaitë, the Permanent Representative of Lithuania to the U.N., who stated that the theme of this open briefing– countering incitement to commit terrorist acts motivated by extremism and intolerance–was prompted by the Committee’s 2013 visit to Morocco and identifying its national strategy to promote dialogue among civilizations as a good practice to be shared among other States. The Chair noted, “Whether in developing or developed States, religious leaders can play a pivotal role in creating an environment of peaceful coexistence. By promoting intra-religious and interreligious reflection and dialogue, governments can help build trust within societies and within public institutions.”

Minister Ahmed Toufiq’s Statement[3]

Minister Toufiq started with the assertion that many Islamic terrorist groups seek to take advantage of the following religious beliefs of most observant Muslims: (1) “religion gives meaning to life;” (2) “some events that have taken place in recent history are ambiguous and tend to disturb the conscience that believes in the ideal values of religion;” (3) “justice at all levels is a central value in religion;” and (4) “religion encompasses all the bases of life and . . . regulates [life] for both individuals and community.”

At the same time, he said, observant Muslims can be vulnerable to some Islamic terrorists’ messages due to (a) “a belief that “political legitimacy [is based upon a] commitment to the fundamentals of religion;” (2) Islamic terrorists’ “interpretation of [Islamic religious] texts in the absence of a respectable qualified [Islamic] religious authority;” and (3) the “absence of or shortcomings in [Islamic] religious leadership and supervision or religious services.”

In these historical circumstances, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI as the country’s Commander of the Faithful has pursued policies to prevent terrorism: adopting reforms and actions in accordance with religious fundamentals (defending religion, protecting life, guarding against harmful ideologies, preserving property and defending honor and dignity); and implementing reforms to enhance security, justice and living conditions and thereby consolidate solidarity and combat social marginalization and exclusion. These measures include the following:

  • Adherence to the Ash’ari doctrine that does not excommunicate people or impose death sentences for transgressing Devine Decrees;[4]
  • Adherence to the Maliki school of jurisprudence that encompasses a “rich variety of methods to derive rulings from their sources;” that has “flexibility in integrating local cultural practices within the sphere of Islamic Law;” that recognizes the “importance [of] . . . public interest [including] . . . a fatwa (ruling) . . . that the laws that are promulgated in Morocco all have religious legitimacy.”[5]
  • “Preservation of the spiritual dimension of Islam known for its mysticism (Sufism). . . [that calls] the soul to account as a means to reach ethical perfection . . . . [that raises] the awareness of the sanctity of the Other, [that] curbs unhealthy enthusiasm for racial and tribal belonging and [that] sets up institutions that provide assistance, protection, education and development.”[6]

The Commander of the Faithful also has established the High Council for Religious Affairs as a modernization of Morocco’s long-standing Order of religious scholars to “implement the fundamentals of religion, especially in mosques, the intellectual enhancement of the caretakers of religion and of the general public, which would definitely curb negative phenomena such as terrorism.” They do so “in conformity with the great principle known in Islam as ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil.’”

The High Council, therefore, takes “charge of issuing fatwas pertaining to political life and social activity, while people’s statements on religion remain mere opinions whose free expression is guaranteed so long as [they] do not violate the law.” The Council thereby has “demonstrated through legal proof . . . that there is no cogent proof for terrorism in religion.”

The Commander of the Faithful also has substantially increased the budget allocated to religious services, including “holding in-service training of imams under the supervision of the legal scholars; training young imams from among university graduates; [and] training spiritual guides from among female university graduates . . . to provide guidance to women and men in mosques, . . . schools, hospitals and prisons.”[7]

Conclusion

The above comments about Islam in Morocco were placed in broader context by the following statement in the remarkable website “Morocco on the Move” maintained by the Moroccan American Center, a group of three U.S. NGOs:

  • “Morocco has a long history of religious diversity and tolerance. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by Morocco’s Constitution, and in contrast to other parts of North Africa or even Europe, Morocco is internationally recognized for peaceful coexistence among the country’s Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
  • “Morocco protected its Jewish citizens from anti-Semitic laws during World War II, and in 2009, King Mohammed [VI] became the first Arab leader to denounce the Holocaust, calling it ‘one of the most tragic chapters of modern history.’ Morocco has a vibrant Jewish community, with thriving synagogues and schools. Members of the Jewish community have played and continue to play key roles in Moroccan political life, such as serving as a senior royal advisor, an ambassador-at-large, and parliamentary candidates.”

Although, as noted in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has pointed out weaknesses in Morocco’s freedom of religion, as a non-Moroccan and a non-Muslim, I am impressed by Morocco’s intelligent analysis of the threat posed by terrorists, especially from ISIS and Al Qaeda, Morocco’s crafting of responses to emphasize the true peacefulness of Islam and the leadership of King Mohammed VI. I also especially solicit corrections and elaborations of the above account.

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[1] Morocco’s involvement with the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee and other multilateral and bilateral efforts to combat terrorism was discussed in a prior post. Another such multilateral effort was its July 2015 hosting of the inaugural conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT) – Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) Border Security Initiative (BSI). (U.N. Counter-Terrorism Centre, Inaugural Conference of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre-Global Counterterrorism Forum Border Security Initiative (July 2015).

[2] Talking Points of Ambassador Nasser Bourita (Sept. 30, 2014); Director General Mansouri, Speech to U.N. Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee (Sept. 30, 2014).

[3] Toufiq, Speech at U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee (Sept. 20, 2014).

[4] According to Wikipedia, Ash’ari theology is an early theological and orthodox school of Sunni Islam that holds that interpreting the Quran and the Hadith should keep developing with the aid of older interpretations. While it depends on rationalism, it also holds that the unique nature and attributes of Allah cannot be fully understood by human reasoning and the senses.

[5] According to Wikipedia, Maliki is one of four major schools of religious law within Sunni Islam. Its sources for Islamic law (Sharia) are hierarchically prioritized as follows: Quran and then trustworthy Hadiths (sayings, customs and actions of Muhammad); if these sources were ambiguous on an issue, then `Amal (customs and practices of the people of Medina), followed by consensus of the Sahabah (the companions of Muhammad), then individual’s opinion from the Sahabah, Qiyas (analogy), Istislah (interest and welfare of Islam and Muslims), and finally Urf (custom of people throughout the Muslim world if it did not contradict the hierarchically higher sources of Sharia).

[6] According to Wikipedia, Sufism believes that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the divine presence in this life. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasing of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of human nature (fitra) as described in the Quran. In this state nothing one does defies Allah, and all is undertaken with the single motivation of love (ishq).

[7] In May 2014, King Mohammed VI launched the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams, Morchidines, and Morchidates in Rabat, which will welcome students from Morocco, Africa, and the Middle East to promote religious moderation and tolerance in the region.

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on Moroccan Religious Freedom in 2016

On August 10, 2016, the U.S. Department of State released its latest annual report on religious freedom in every country in the world for 2015. Here are the key points of what it said about Morocco.[1]

The Report on Morocco

Morocco with its population of 33.3 million people (July 2015), estimates that 99% are Sunni Muslim and 1%, Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahais.

“The constitution declares the country to be a sovereign Muslim state and Islam to be the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees the free exercise of beliefs to everyone.”

“The law grants recognition to Sunni Maliki-Ashari Muslims and Jews as native populations free to practice their religion without any specific requirements to register with the government. The law requires [all other] religious groups not recognized as native, which includes non-Maliki-Ashari Muslims (i.e., Shia) and Christians, among others, to register before they are able to undertake financial transactions or conduct other business as private associations and legal entities.”

“Registered churches and associations include the Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, French Protestant, and Anglican Churches, whose existence as foreign resident Churches predates the country’s independence in 1956 and which operate within the officially registered Council of Christian Churches of Morocco (CECM).”

“The constitution states the king is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of freedom of worship. It prohibits political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments from infringing upon Islam. The criminal code prohibits the use of ‘enticements’ by non-Muslims to try to convert Muslims to another religion. The minister of justice reaffirmed the freedom to change religions as long as no coercion was involved, but said Christian evangelism remained prohibited because missionaries had offered material inducements to the poor to convert them.”

“The government reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christians about their beliefs and contacts with other Moroccan Christians, including incidents in Rabat and Fes. The government also continued to deny registration to local Christian, Shia, and Bahai groups. Representatives of minority religious groups said fears of government surveillance led adherents of the Christian, Bahai, and Shia faiths to refrain from public worship and instead to meet discreetly in members’ homes. The government allowed foreign Christian communities to attend worship services in approved locations. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to control the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by the broadcast media. The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. The government arrested several individuals for eating in public during Ramadan.”

“Although Jews said they continued to live and worship in safety, participants in a pro-Palestinian rally in Casablanca in October staged a mock execution of individuals dressed as Hasidic Jews. Christians reported pressure to convert from non-Christian family and friends. Two Muslim actors received death threats for appearing in a U.S.-made movie about the life of Jesus. Members of the Shia community said in some areas they were able to practice their faith openly, but most members of the community practiced discreetly. Bahais reportedly practiced their faith discreetly and avoided disclosing their religious affiliation.”

“The U.S. government promoted religious tolerance in its bilateral strategic dialogue [with the Moroccan government]. The Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. government officials met with senior government officials, including the minister of endowments and Islamic affairs, to discuss tolerance of minority religions. The Ambassador and embassy officers also met with Muslim religious scholars, leaders of the Jewish community, prominent Christian visitors, Christian foreign residents, leaders of registered and unregistered Christian groups, and other local religious groups to promote religious dialogue.”

Conclusion

With Sunni Muslim as the state religion under Morocco’s constitution and 99% of the population’s being Sunni Muslims, it would appear to this non-Moroccan Christian outsider that it would be easy and non-threatening for the Moroccan government to allow virtually unfettered religious freedom to all others (Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias). However, Morocco does not do so. Therefore, I believe the U.S. government, while observing all diplomatic niceties, should endeavor to persuade the Moroccan government to provide more religious freedom to the other religious groups.

Any U.S. efforts at attempting to persuade Morocco should refer to Morocco’s ratification or accession in 1979 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides the following in Article 18: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

  1. “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
  2. “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
  3. “The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”[2]

That U.S. effort should also mention that under the ICCPR, Morocco as a state party has submitted periodical reports regarding its implementation of the treaty to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which after review and consultation with the party issues its Concluding Observations on that implementation. The last such Concluding Observations by this Committee, which were issued on December 1, 2016, said the following about freedom of religion in Morocco:

  • “39. The Committee is concerned by reports that restrictions are placed on the practice of religions other than the official religion. It is also concerned about provisions in the Criminal Code that criminalize actions contrary to the Muslim religion and the introduction of new offences to the draft Criminal Code that further extend the limits imposed on freedom of religion and expression (arts. 18 and 19).”
  • “40. The State party should eliminate any legislative provision or discriminatory practice that is in violation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and ensure that the draft revised Criminal Code now under discussion is fully in accordance with article 18 of the Covenant.”

Finally this outsider also suggests that discussions with the Moroccan government on this subject should refer to the January 2016 Declaration of Marrakesh about religious minorities in Muslim majority countries that was discussed in a prior post.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2015: Morocco (Aug. 2016). The annual reports on the same subject by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom do not comment on every country in the world and Morocco is one such country that is not covered. (U.S. Com’n Int’l Religious Freedom, Annual Report (April 2017) (Morocco is not on list of countries covered by report, pp. iii-iv).

[2] The ICCPR and other international instruments regarding religious freedom were briefly reviewed in International Law Regarding Freedom of Religion, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 1, 2012).

An Exciting Introduction to Morocco 

Last month my wife and I went on a wonderful two-week tour of Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel. Here is the OAT map for the tour:

We were impressed by the country’s fascinating history and people, its beautiful architecture, cities and rugged Atlas Mountains, the immensity of the rolling Sahara Desert along its southern border and its current construction boom.

While there we also learned of Morocco’s recent re-establishment of its diplomatic relations with Cuba, a country about which I have written a lot, and of Morocco’s membership in the African Union, both related to Morocco’s lingering conflict over the Western Sahara, which was the subject of a recent U.N. Security Council resolution, all of which were discussed in recent posts.[1]

Also fascinating was the country’s religious profile. Its population of 33.7 million is 99% Sunni Muslim with 1% Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews and Bahias. In every town the mosques’ minarets were the instantaneously recognizable tallest structures.[2]

Our OAT tour guide told us that the current king, Mohammad VI, has been leading efforts to ensure that Muslims in Morocco are not encouraged to join extremists groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda. All imams have to complete an education course at the capitol at Rabat that is organized and administered by the government’s ministry of religious affairs (The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs of the Kingdom of Morocco) and that excludes the extremist ideologies promoted by ISIS and Al Qaeda.

We also were told that neither the government nor the Muslim leaders discriminate against Christians or Jews, and we visited a synagogue in Fez. On the other hand, we were told, the Christians and Jews are forbidden from preaching or proselytizing or evangelizing in public.

Previously I had learned that the five “pillars” of Islam are (1) shahada, declaring as a matter of faith and trust that there is only one God (Allah) and that Mohammad is God’s messenger; (2) salat, saying the Islamic prayer five times a day; (3) zakat, giving to the poor and needy; (4) slym, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) haji, making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Although in Morocco I only experienced hearing the call to prayer over a minaret’s loudspeaker, I came to see these pillars of faith as similar to various practices of Christian spirituality, as ways of reinforcing a believer’s connections with God (Allah), and as ways that help believers live in accordance with the will of God (Allah). These pillars and practices, in my opinion, also rest on the belief that no one is perfect, that all find it too easy to stray from the path of faithfulness and that all need reminders of God or Allah’s way.

I felt fortunate that my Minneapolis church (Westminster Presbyterian) has warm relations with a local mosque and that we have hosted at least two worship services including its leaders. [3]

After returning to the U.S., I conducted research and discovered more about the previously mentioned government ministry; Morocco’s positive relations with international anti-terrorism groups; the important Declaration of Marrakesh promoting respect for religious minorities in Muslim countries; the most current U.S. State Department’s assessment of Morocco’s religious freedom; and the nature of current U.S.-Morocco relations. These topics will be explored in subsequent posts.

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[1] Cuba and Morocco Re-Establish Diplomatic Relations, dwkcommentaries.com (May 7, 2017); U.N. Security Council Orders More Negotiations About the Western Sahara Conflict, dwkcommentaries.com (May 9, 2017).

[2] CIA World Factbook, Morocco.

[3] Interfaith Worship Service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 2, 2015); A Christian-Muslim Conversation About Forgiveness, dwkcommentaries.com (May 15, 2017).

 

Repentance

The fourth Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is repentance.[1] This post will review the Scriptures and sermon for that theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was Jeremiah 31:15-21 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations):

  • “Thus says the Lord:
  • A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
    Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
  • Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
    for there is a reward for your work, they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.
  • Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
  • ‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the Lord my God. For after I had turned away, I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
  • Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
    As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
    Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him.
  • Set up road markers for yourself// make yourself signposts;
    consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
    Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

The New Testament text was Acts 28:23-28 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations and emphasis added):

  • “After [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers.
  • From morning until evening [Paul] explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.
  • Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement:
  •  ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’
  • Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

The Sermon

In the sermon Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen said that “changing direction is sometimes necessary. Making mid-course adjustments in life because we’ve gotten off track. Turning around. Finding a new way. . . .”

“Repentance is a common biblical term, found throughout Scripture. Whether in the Hebrew – the word is shuv – or in the Greek – metanoia – the Bible links repentance with a change of direction, a turning in life.”

The Acts’ passage about Paul’s meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome talks about the need for them to “[u]nderstand with their heart and turn. Repentance begins when the heart understands that it’s time to turn.”

That’s precisely what the prophet Jeremiah has in mind when he speaks to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. From the “prophet’s perspective the people had lost their way. He tells them their hope lies in turning and finding the path back not only to the land of Israel, but finding their way back to God. That’s the core issue here; is it the same for us? They had forgotten their covenant with God; that’s what landed them in Babylon in the first place.”

“Exile can be a powerful way for us to understand our own circumstances. Some of us are in a Babylon of our own right now, maybe of our own making. Some of us feel far from home.”

“The next time we feel ourselves in exile or isolated or cut off, let’s look for the way markers, the guideposts that point toward home, and then find within us the courage to follow them.”

“‘Consider well the highway,’ Jeremiah says to them. Remember how you got here in the first place. Make an honest assessment. Consider ‘the road by which you went.’

It helps to know how we ended up where we are; it’s important to have some sense of what went wrong.”

“That’s repentance-talk. The prophet is exhorting them to find a different path, to change directions, to turn back toward God. That’s the work of every person of faith, eventually. All of us. Over and over again.”

Theologian “Gustavo Gutierrez . . . calls sin, ‘a breach of friendship with God and others.’”

“Maybe that can help us remember better what went wrong and why we need to repent, why we need to change direction: we’ve broken the bonds of friendship with God and others. In so doing, we have let ourselves down, as well. We have diminished our own humanity by breaching our relationships. That’s the story of the people of God throughout scripture; and it’s our story, too. The people turn away from God; God calls them back; God waits; the people stumble along and, if their eyes are open and their ears unstopped, they – we – finally turn back toward God.”

“It’s the repairing of brokenhearted love”.

“If the question this Lent is What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? The response points toward a change of heart. It invites us to turn around. To go back. To find our way home.”

“Much of what passes as Christian faith today is little more than glorified self-help, a way to improve our lives. Christianity is not a self-help religion; in fact, it’s not centered on the self at all. Quite the opposite: our faith is other-centered. It begins with and is sustained by the desire for right relationship; first with God, and then with others.”

“At its best, the Church is that road sign for each of us – and for the world around us. Our witness in the world ought to help people find their way home, and lead us in that direction, too.”

“But to do so, to be that witness, to find our way, we will have to rediscover the gentle power of repentance, a turning of the heart that puts us on the path back to God.”

Reflections

In the Jeremiah passage, Ephraim confessed to God about his turning away from God and the disgrace of his youth. But Ephraim repented and asked God to let him come back. In response God says He is deeply moved for Ephraim and “will surely have mercy for him.”

This reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 10-32), where the younger of two brothers after leading a sinful life in another country “came to himself” and repented. He then returned to his home, and his father ran to embrace and forgive him and to celebrate the return of his son.

This Parable for me is one of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture and one of the foundations for my Christian faith. It reminds me of my repentance and returning to God in 1981 by joining Westminster after 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness. Since then its worship services and adult education offerings have been signposts and road markers that help me maintain that faith.

Apostle Paul in the Acts passage obviously is annoyed with the Jewish leaders in Rome who would not change from their beliefs and ways to accept Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah to condemn them and tops it off with a taunt that the Gentiles will listen and accept Jesus.

Paul, in my opinion, is too hasty and uncharitable in this response. Any kind of significant change by an individual is difficult, including a Jew’s changing from a traditional Jewish faith to one that puts Jesus at the center of that faith.

It takes courage to make such a change. This is recognized by Alcoholics Anonymous’ use of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can.”[2]

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[1] Prior posts discussed the following three themes: mindfulness, humility and mercy.

[2] A subsequent post will discuss several Jewish individuals who had the courage to change from Judaism to Christianity and those who did so out of fear of persecution.

 

 

President Obama Speaks Out for Religious Freedom

President Obama
President Obama

On February 6th at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama affirmed that we are “all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own.  But in this work, as Lincoln said, our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”

It was important, Obama said, that “as Americans, we affirm the freedoms endowed by our Creator, among them freedom of religion. . . . [This] freedom safeguards religion . . . [and] religion strengthens America.  Brave men and women of faith have challenged our conscience and brought us closer to our founding ideals, from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, workers’ rights.”

In addition, the President declared, “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Therefore, the U.S. must take steps to challenge the threats to that freedom around the world. “We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful.  We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love.  Old tensions are stoked, fueling conflicts along religious lines, . . . even though to harm anyone in the name of faith is to diminish our own relationship with God.  Extremists succumb to an ignorant nihilism that shows they don’t understand the faiths they claim to profess — for the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will; in fact, it’s the ultimate betrayal of God’s will.”

Specific criticisms for violations of religious freedom were directed by the President at China, Burma, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria and North Korea.

The President also made a personal confession of his own religious faith. He said, God had “directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. . . . [The] church fed me . . .[and] led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior . . . [and] to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters [and] to public service.  And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.”

Earlier this year the President, proclaiming January 16th as Religious Freedom Day, emphasized that “America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals — freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.”

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

A similar statement about Religious Freedom Day was made by U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. She said, “Protecting freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American foreign policy, carried out by prioritizing accountability for religiously-motivated violence, urging governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities, and promoting societal respect for religious diversity. And at the United Nations, we work with our partners to fight for the world’s religious minorities, including adoption of the landmark Human Rights Council resolution calling on member states to combat intolerance, violence, and discrimination based on religion.”[1]


[1] The New York Times and Washington Post issued reports on the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier posts have discussed the work on international freedom of religion by the U.S. Department of State and by the quasi-independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.