U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom  

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories in the world. This report is a requirement pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended; legislation that upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, as well as a universal human right. This law calls for the government to, quote, “[Stand] for liberty and [stand] with the persecuted, to use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples.”[1]

The release was accompanied by remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said, “conditions in many parts of the world are far from ideal. Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent. Almost 80 percent of the global population live with restrictions on or hostilities to limit their freedom of religion. Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses, and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root.” He specifically mentioned serious concerns about religious freedom in ISIS, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Bahrain, China, Pakistan and Sudan. Subsequently Ambassador Michael Kozak, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, conducted a telephone conference briefing with journalists.[2]

Our focus here is examining the report’s substantially positive assessment of religious freedom in Cuba in 2016.[3] A more negative evaluation of Cuba was provided earlier this year by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an unusual, quasi-governmental group; its report about Cuba  also will be discussed before providing my own observations.

State Department’s Assessment of Cuba[4]

Religious Demography

“The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.2 million (July 2016 estimate). There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church estimates 60 to 70 percent of the population identify as Catholic. Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent of the population. Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations. The Assemblies of God reports approximately 110,000 members and the Four Baptist Conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000 members. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 96,000; Methodists at 36,000; Seventh-day Adventists at 35,000; Anglicans, 22,500; Presbyterians, 15,500; Episcopalians, 6,000; Quakers, 300; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 100. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,500 members, of whom 1,200 reside in Havana. According to the Islamic League, there are 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims residing in the country, of whom an estimated 1,500 are Cubans. Other religious groups include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, and Bahais.”

“Many individuals, particularly in the African Cuban community, practice religions with roots in West Africa and the Congo River Basin, known collectively as Santeria. These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.”

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government and the Cuban Communist Party monitored religious groups through the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and continued to control most aspects of religious life. Observers noted that the government harassed some religious leaders and their followers, with reports of threats, detentions, and violence. Evangelical and other Protestant religious leaders reported the government threatened to expropriate some religious properties under zoning laws passed in 2015 but took no action during the year. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a January publication that there was an increase in government threats to close churches from 2014 to 2015. The majority was related to government threats to close churches belonging to Assemblies of God congregations, but the Assemblies of God and the government were able to reach an agreement which enabled the churches to stay open. 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. Multiple high-level leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups agreed the religious freedom environment had improved compared to past years.” (Emphases added.)[5]

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.” (Emphasis added.)

“U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the ORA to discuss the registration process for religious organizations and inquire about the rights of nonregistered groups to practice their religion. Embassy officials also met with the head of the Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), an officially recognized organization that has close ties to the government and comprises most Protestant groups, to discuss their operations and programs. The [U.S.] Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the [U.S.] Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs met with leaders of Catholic, Protestant, and minority religious groups to discuss the religious freedom environment in the country. The embassy remained in close contact with religious groups, including facilitating exchanges between visiting religious delegations and religious groups in the country. In public statements, the U.S. government called upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.”

U.S. Commission’s Evaluation of Cuba[6]

On April 26, 2017, the Commission released its 2017 report on religious freedom in 36 countries and one region, in contrast to the nearly 200 countries covered by the State Department. The Commission’s nine unpaid, part-time commissioners are appointed by various federal government officials supported by an ex-officio non-voting member (U.S. Ambassador David Saperstein), an executive director, four directors, an executive writer, five policy analysts, one researcher and four administrative staff, all based in Washington, D.C. It apparently has an annual budget of only $ 3.5 million.[7]

The 36 countries (and one region) evaluated by the Commission fall into the following three groups:

  • The 16 countries that the Commission believes constitute “countries of particular concern” (CPC) or “any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly egregious religious freedom violations that are systematic, ongoing, and egregious” and that the Commission recommends that the State Department so designate. (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 12 countries that the Commission believes constitute “Tier 2 nations in which the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard;” Cuba is one of these 12 countries (Pp. 3-4)
  • The 8 other countries and one region that the Commission has monitored, but are not deemed to be CPC or Tier 2. (Pp. 3-4)

For Cuba, the Commission’s “Key Findings” were the following: “During the reporting period, religious freedom conditions in Cuba continued to deteriorate due to the government’s short-term detentions of religious leaders, demolition of churches, and threats to confiscate churches. In addition, the Cuban government harasses religious leaders and laity, interferes in religious groups’ internal affairs, and prevents—at times violently—human rights and pro-democracy activists from participating in religious activities. The Cuban government actively limits, controls, and monitors religious practice through a restrictive system of laws and policies, surveillance, and harassment. Based on these concerns, USCIRF again places Cuba on its Tier 2 in 2017, as it has since 2004.” (P. 134)

Almost all of the specifics that purportedly underlie these Key Findings relate to churches affiliated with the Apostolic Movement;[8] Assemblies of God churches, which the State Department reports had settled its problems with the Cuban government; the Western Baptist Convention; and the detentions of Ladies in White protestors (pp. 136-38). Apparently, the Commission’s discussion of Cuba is based in whole or in part on reports by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has headquartered in the United Kingdom with offices in Washington, D.C. and Brussels, Belgium and which only obtained U.N. accredited consultative status after eight years by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in April 2017 by a vote of 28-9 with 12 abstentions.

Purportedly based on these Key Findings, the Commission made certain recommendations to the federal government (p. 134).

Conclusion

I believe that the State Department’s assessment on Cuba is more reliable than that from the U.S. Commission, as a mere comparison of their respective reports and as the mere listing of the various religious groups active on the island in the Department’s report should demonstrate.

Moreover, the Department has experienced diplomats in Cuba who met during the year with various Cuban government and religious officials supplemented by visits to Cuba by Washington, D.C. Department officials with responsibility for assessing religious freedom around the world. In contrast, the Commission is a very small organization with limited resources in Washington, D.C. without personnel in Cuba or visits to Cuba and that apparently has focused on a small number of Cuban churches, some of which apparently are affiliated with a little-known church in California and with apparent reliance on a little-known U.K. group that only recently received U.N. accredited consultative status by a divided vote.

The Department’s assessment also is supported by my personal experience.

Over the last 15 years as a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church I have been actively involved in our partnerships with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of Cuba and with the national Synod of that church. I have been on three church mission trips to Cuba to visit our partner and other Presbyterian-Reformed churches and its campimento (camp) on the island, the ecumenical seminary in Matanzas (Seminario Evangelico de Teologia), Havana’s office of the Council of Cuban Churches and Havana’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and its affiliated Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Pastor Rev. Raúl Suárez, who has served in Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power).

I also have welcomed and discussed Cuban religious life with Cuban members and pastors on their visits to Minneapolis, including Rev. Dra. Ofelia Miriam Ortega Suárez, the Directora of Havana’s Instituto Cristiano de Estudios Sobre Gênero and a member of Cuba’s legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). In addition, I have heard from other Westminster members and pastors about their trips to Cuba. This includes some Westminster members who have been involved in installing clean water systems in Cuban Presbyterian-Reformed churches through the Living Waters for the World Ministry of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our denomination, and a Westminster member is now the Moderator of the Cuba Network Coordinating Team for that organization.[9]  Finally I read widely about Cuba, especially its relations with the U.S. and its religious life.

These connections have been very important to me personally and to others at Westminster as we stand in solidarity with our Cuban brothers and sisters. I also was impressed and moved by Pope Francis’ encouragement of U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation in 2013-2014 and his pastoral visits to Cuba and the U.S. in 2015.[10]

I, therefore, believe that at least in the 21st century there has been an ever-increasing role for, and freedom of, religion in Cuba as this poor country struggles to improve the spiritual and economic welfare of its people. I also believe that Westminster and other U.S. churches’ partnering with Cuban churches and people along with Pope Francis’ witness have been God’s servants aiding, and continuing to aid, these encouraging changes.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Preface: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, Overview and Acknowledgement: International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 (Aug. 15, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson: Remarks on the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report (Aug. 15, 2017); Special Briefing: Ambassador Michael Kozak, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (Aug. 15, 2017).

[3] Other posts have discussed the State Department’s and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s previous assessments of Cuban religious freedom along with comments by others and the international law regarding freedom of religion; they are listed in the “Cuban Freedom of Religion” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016: Cuba (Aug. 15, 2017).

[5] This positive development was emphasized in the body of the Cuba report, which stated, “Religious groups reported their leaders continued to travel abroad to participate in two-way exchanges between local faith-based communities and those in other countries. 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.”

[6] U.S. Comm’n Int’l Religious Freedom, 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017); Press Release: USCIRF Releases 2017 Annual Report (April 26, 2017).

[7] Grieboski, The Case for Pulling the Plug on the US Commission on  International Religious Freedom, Huffpost (Dec. 18, 2011); Press Release: Rubio Celebrates Signing Of U.S. Commission On International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act Into Law (Oct. 15, 2015).

[8] The Apostolic Movement apparently is headquartered in San Diego, California as “a Fivefold Ministry organization headed by an Apostolic team of Fivefold Ministers . . .[with] a mandate from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ, to go and prepare the Body of Christ for the final move of God . . . [by finding] the Hidden Warriors whom He has hidden away, waiting for the time of their manifestation [based upon the belief that] God has reserved for Himself apostles, both men and women, who are not currently visible or part of the Status Quo Church System.”

[9] A brief discussion of these Westminster connections with Cuba occurs in this blog post: Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation (Dec. 22, 2014).

[10] See the blog posts listed in the “Pope Francis Visits to Cuba & U.S., 2015” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

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

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).

The Fifth Day of Pope Francis’ Mission to the American People

Pope Francis’ fifth day in the U.S. started with a plane ride from New York City’s J.F. Kennedy International Airport to Philadelphia’s International Airport where he was welcomed by a group of dignitaries, including local church officials and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. The Pope, however, reserved his greatest affection and hug for Gabrielle Bowes, daughter of former Philadelphia police officer Richard Bowes who had been shot and injured in the line of duty. As the Pope’s car was about to join the motorcade to leave the airfield, he stopped, got out and greeted a group of people craning to see him from behind a security barrier. Among them was Michael Keating, 10, who was in a wheelchair.

Francis then went to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he celebrated mass. Next was a trip to Independence Hall where he spoke about religious liberty and immigration before a crowd of 50,000. That evening he attended the Festival of Families in the city with an estimated 1 million people and gave remarks.

Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul[1]

At the Cathedral Francis was welcomed by Philadelphia’s Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, who jokingly said, “This is a city that would change its name to Francisville today.” Among the 2,4000 people in the pews were bishops, priests and nuns from Pennsylvania.

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In his homily, Francis said, “This morning I learned something about the history of this beautiful Cathedral: the story behind its high walls and windows. I would like to think, though, that the history of the Church in this city and state is really a story not about building walls, but about breaking them down. It is a story about generation after generation of committed Catholics going out to the peripheries, and building communities of worship, education, charity and service to the larger society.” (A photograph of the Pope delivering the homily is above.)

“That story is seen in the many shrines which dot this city, and the many parish churches whose towers and steeples speak of God’s presence in the midst of our communities. It is seen in the efforts of all those dedicated priests, religious and laity who for over two centuries have ministered to the spiritual needs of the poor, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison. And it is seen in the hundreds of schools where religious brothers and sisters trained children to read and write, to love God and neighbor, and to contribute as good citizens to the life of American society. All of this is a great legacy which you have received, and which you have been called to enrich and pass on.”

“Most of you know the story of Saint Katharine Drexel, one of the great saints raised up by this local Church. When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope – he was a very wise Pope! – asked her pointedly: ‘What about you? What are you going to do?’ Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church.”

“’What about you?’ I would like to dwell on two aspects of these words in the context of our particular mission to transmit the joy of the Gospel and to build up the Church, whether as priests, deacons, or members of institutes of consecrated life.

First, those words – ‘What about you?’ – were addressed to a young person, a young woman with high ideals, and they changed her life. They made her think of the immense work that had to be done, and to realize that she was being called to do her part. How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit, and love for Christ and the Church! Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part? To find ways of sharing their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others? Do we share our own joy and enthusiasm in serving the Lord?”

“One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world. This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.”

“‘What about you?’ It is significant that those words of the elderly Pope were also addressed to a lay woman. We know that the future of the Church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity. The Church in the United States has always devoted immense effort to the work of catechesis and education. Our challenge today is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions. This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the Church. In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”

“Dear brothers and sisters, I thank you for the way in which each of you has answered Jesus’ question which inspired your own vocation: ‘What about you?’ I encourage you to be renewed in the joy of that first encounter with Jesus and to draw from that joy renewed fidelity and strength. I look forward to being with you in these days and I ask you to bring my affectionate greetings to those who could not be with us, especially the many elderly priests and religious who join us in spirit.”

“During these days of the World Meeting of Families, I would ask you in a particular way to reflect on our ministry to families, to couples preparing for marriage, and to our young people. I know how much is being done in your local Churches to respond to the needs of families and to support them in their journey of faith. I ask you to pray fervently for them, and for the deliberations of the forthcoming Synod on the Family.

Now, with gratitude for all we have received, and with confident assurance in all our needs, let us turn to Mary, our Blessed Mother. With a mother’s love, may she intercede for the growth of the Church in America in prophetic witness to the power of her Son’s Cross to bring joy, hope and strength into our world. I pray for each of you, and I ask you, please, to pray for me.”

Independence Hall[2]

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After visiting Independence Hall, to an orchestra’s playing of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” Francis went in front of the building to the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address. There Francis gave his address extolling the principles of the country’s founding fathers embodied by the Declaration of Independence signed in that building. (The above photograph shows Pope Francis at the lectern to the right of the statue of George Washington in front of the entrance to Independence Hall.) Here are the words of that address.

“One of the highlights of my visit is to stand here, before Independence Mall, the birthplace of the United States of America. It was here that the freedoms that define this country were first proclaimed. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights. Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.”

“But history also shows that these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended. The history of this nation is also the tale of a constant effort, lasting to our own day, to embody those lofty principles in social and political life. We remember the great struggles which led to the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans. This shows that, when a country is determined to remain true to its founding principles, based on respect for human dignity, it is strengthened and renewed.”

“All of us benefit from remembering our past. A people that remembers does not repeat past errors; instead, it looks with confidence to the challenges of the present and the future. Remembrance saves a people’s soul from whatever or whoever would attempt to dominate it or use it for their interests. When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society.”

“In this place which is symbolic of the American way, I would like to reflect with you on the right to religious freedom. It is a fundamental right that shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own.”

“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”

“Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights. Our rich religious traditions seek to offer meaning and direction, “they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and heart” (Evangelii Gaudium, 256). They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.”

“Our religious traditions remind us that, as human beings, we are called to acknowledge an Other, who reveals our relational identity in the face of every effort to impose ‘a uniformity to which the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us’ (M. de Certeau).”

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”

“We live in a world subject to the ‘globalization of the technocratic paradigm’ (Laudato Si’, 106), which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity. The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 255) is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity… and a path to peace in our troubled world’ (ibid., 257).”

“The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony that would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. That sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit.”

After his comments about the Quakers, Francis extemporaneously added that globalization was a force for good if it worked toward equalizing, uniting and bringing respect to people. But if it “tries to make everybody even, as if it was a sphere, that globalization destroys the richness and specificity of each person and each people.”

Returning to his text, Francis said, “During his visit to the United States in 1987, Saint John Paul II paid moving homage to this, reminding all Americans that: ‘The ultimate test of your greatness is the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenseless ones’ (Farewell Address, 19 September 1987, 3).”

“I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant. All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard. You are their voice, and many of you have faithfully made their cry heard. In this witness, that frequently encounters powerful resistance, you remind American democracy of the ideals for which it was founded, and that society is weakened whenever and wherever injustice prevails.”

“Among us today are members of America’s large Hispanic population, as well as representatives of recent immigrants to the United States. I greet all of you with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land. I repeat, do not be ashamed of what is part of you, your life blood. You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live. I think in particular of the vibrant faith that so many of you possess, the deep sense of family life and all those other values which you have inherited. By contributing your gifts, you will not only find your place here, you will help to renew society from within.”

“Dear friends, I thank you for your warm welcome and for joining me here today. May this country and each of you be renewed in gratitude for the many blessings and freedoms that you enjoy. And may you defend these rights, especially your religious freedom, for it has been given to you by God himself. May he bless you all. I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.

World Meeting of Families[3]

The Pope ended the day with an appearance at the large gathering of people at the Festival of Families, an intercultural celebration of family life around the world. There were musical acts — Aretha Franklin, Sister Sledge, The Fray and the Philadelphia Orchestra— with testimony from six families from around the world and readings.

Pope Francis addresses the Festival of Families during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See POPE-FAMILIES-FESTIVAL Sept. 27, 2015.

When the time case for Francis to speak, he abandoned his prepared speech (in English) about the need for government support for families. Instead, as shown in photograph to the left, for 25 minutes Francis delivered the following extemporaneous remarks in Spanish (here in English translation).

“All that is beautiful leads us to God. Because God is good, God is beautiful, God is true. Thank you all those who have offered their witness. And for the presence of all of you, that is also great witness…a real witness that it’s worth being a family.”

“Once a child asked me . . . ‘Father, what did God do before creating the world?’. . . [I responded,]Before creating the world, God loved. Because God is love. He had so much love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was so overflowing. . . . It had to be poured out of him. So as to share that love with those out of himself. And then God created the world. God made this marvelous world in which we live. . . . ”

“But the most beautiful thing that God did, says the Bible, was the family. God made man, and he made woman. And he gave them everything. He gave them the world. So they could multiply and cultivate the land. All that love he made in creation, he bestowed it to them in the family.”

“All of the love that God has in himself, all the beauty that he has in himself, he gives it to the family. And the family is really family when it is able to open its arms and receive all that love.”

“Of course, it’s not quite earthly paradise. There are still problems. Men and women, through the astuteness of the devil, have learned unfortunately how to divide themselves. And all that love that God gave, almost was lost.”

“In a little period of time – the first crime. The first instance of fratricide. A brother kills another brother. And war. Love, beauty and truth of God [on the one hand]and destruction and war [on the other hand]. And between those: we walk ahead. It’s up to us to choose. It’s up to us to decide which path we want to take forward.”

“When man and his wife made a mistake, God did not abandon them. So great was His love, that He began to walk with humanity, with His people, until the right moment came, and He made the highest expression of love – His own Son. And where did He send his Son – to a palace? To a city? No. He sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And He could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.”

“Mary, she couldn’t believe it. How can this happen? When the angel explained it to her, she agreed. Joseph. He finds himself in a surprising situation that he doesn’t understand, and he accepts. He obeys. In Mary and Joseph, there is a family in which Jesus is born.”

“God likes to give his love to open hearts. Do you know what he loves most? To knock on the door of families, and find families who love each other, who bring up their children to grow, and help them move forward. To create and develop a society with truth, goodness and beauty.”

“We are celebrating the Feast of the Family. Families have a citizenship which is divine. The identity card that they have is given to them by God. So that within the heart of the family, truth, goodness and beauty can truly grow.”

“Some of you might say, ‘Father, you speak like that because you are single. Families have the difficulties. Families, we quarrel, and sometimes plates can fly. And children bring headaches. I won’t speak about mother-in-laws.”

“But in families, there is always light. Because the love of God, the Son of God opened also that path for us. But just as there are problems in families, we have to remember there is the light of the resurrection afterwards. Because the Son of God created that path.”

“The family is like a factory of hope. It’s a factory of resurrection. God opened this path, this possibility.”

“And children, yes they bring their challenges. And they also are the cause of work and worry. Sometimes at home, I see some of my helpers, they come to work and they look tired. They have a one-month-old baby, and I ask them did you sleep? And they say I couldn’t sleep, Holiness, because they were crying all night.”

“In the family, indeed, there are difficulties. But those difficulties are overcome with love. Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty and overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love. Only love is able to overcome. Love is about celebration, love is joy, love is moving forward.”

“I would like just to offer two points about the family. Some things we really need to take care of: the children and grandparents. Children, whether young or older, they are the future, the strength that moves us forward. We place our hope in them. Grandparents are the living memory of the family. They passed on the faith, they transmitted the faith, to us. To look after grandparents, to look after children, is the expression of love. A people that doesn’t know how to look after its children or grandparents is a people that has no future. Because it doesn’t have strength or the memory to go forward.”

“Family is beautiful, but there is effort involved and there are problems. In families there are unfriendly relationships. Husbands and wives quarrel, can end up badly, separated. Never let the day end without making peace. In a family, you can’t finish the day off not being in peace.”

“May God bless you. May God give you hope, the strength to move forward, let us look after the family. Let’s protect the family. Because it’s in the family that our future is at play.”

“God bless you. And please, pray for me.”

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[1] Heller, Seilers & Ruane, In Philadelphia, Pope Francis challenges Americans to live up to nation’s ideals, Wash. Post (Sept. 26, 2015); Pope Francis’ Homily at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul Mass (Sept. 26, 2015).

[2] Pope Francis’ Remarks at Independence Hall, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2015); Yardley & Wakin, At Independence Hall, Pope Offers a Broad Vision of Religious Freedom, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2015).

[3] Pope Francis’ Impromptu Speech at the Festival of Families (Sept. 26, 2015)

 

U.S.’ Secret Cuban Social Media Program Raises Questions about the Validity of Criticisms of Cuba by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

On April 3, 2014, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) had been providing financial support from 2008 through 2012 for “a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.” This “messaging network . . . [was designed to] reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans.” “To hide the network from the Cuban government, [there was a] byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and . . . [recruitment of] unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.”

According to the AP, after an initial period of creating non-political messages for this social media program, the U.S. planed to “introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize ‘smart mobs’ — mass gatherings called at a moment’s notice that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In short, the social media program aimed to promote regime change in Cuba.

U.S. Government’s Responses to the AP Report

The U.S. Government responded to the AP article the same day by essentially confirming the existence of the social media program while playing word games over whether it was a covert operation and saying it was not aimed at changing the Cuba regime.

At an April 3rd press briefing, President Obama’s Press Secretary, Jay Carney, implicitly admitted the existence of this secret program while claiming it was not covert and was pursuant to congressionally authorized funding. He said, “suggestions that this was a covert program are wrong. . . . In implementing programs in non-permissive environments, of course the government has taken steps to be discreet.”

An USAID spokesman the same day said essentially the same thing. “Of course, [in] the implementation, . . the [U.S.]government [has] taken steps to be discreet in non-permissive environments . . . .  That’s how you protect the practitioners and the public. In hostile environments, we often take steps to protect the partners we’re working with on the ground. This is not unique to Cuba.”

USAID also issued an April 3rd statement that did not deny the AP’s report. Instead, the agency said, “It is longstanding U.S. policy to help Cubans increase their ability to communicate with each other and with the outside world. Working with resources provided by Congress for exactly this purpose, USAID is proud of its work in Cuba to provide basic humanitarian assistance, promote human rights and universal freedoms, and to help information flow more freely to the Cuban people.  All of our work in Cuba, including this project, was reviewed in detail in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office and found to be consistent with U.S. law and appropriate under oversight controls.”

USAID added, “It is also no secret that in hostile environments, governments take steps to protect the partners we are working with on the ground.” This was a backhanded way of admitting that the U.S. government’s involvement in this Cuban social media program was intentionally kept secret.

The U.S. State Department’s April 3rd briefing parroted these remarks. The spokesperson said, “there was nothing classified or covert about this program. Discreet does not equal covert.” She added, the funding was notified to Congress in a 2008 congressional notification titled “Outreach to New Sectors of Cuba Society” for the amount of $6,850,000 for a number of programs, including this one.” Moreover, the spokesperson alleged the U.S. was not “ somehow trying to foment unrest . . . [or] to advance a specific political agenda or point of view.” However, Senator Patrick Leahy has said he was not briefed on the program.

Yes, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigated and last year issued a “clean bill of health” report on the U.S. “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs, without mentioning the social media program. This report said that USAID and “Department of State .  . . provide democracy assistance for Cuba aimed at developing civil society and promoting freedom of information. Typical program beneficiaries include Cuban community leaders, independent journalists, women, youths, and marginalized groups.”[1]

Other U.S. Government Programs Directed at Cuba

The recent Cuban social media project must be seen in light of at least three other U.S. programs directed at and against Cuba.

First is the George W. Bush Administration’s creation in 2003 of the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. It was directed it to report with recommendations for a comprehensive program to (i) “Bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the [Cuban] dictatorship;” (ii) “Establish democratic institutions, respect for human rights and the rule of law [in Cuba];” (iii) “Create the core institutions of a free economy [in Cuba];” (iv) “Modernize [Cuban] infrastructure;” and (v) “Meet [Cuban] basic needs in the areas of health, education, housing and human services.”

This Commission issued a report in May 2004 that stated “Religious organizations, including Catholic and certain authentically independent Protestant denominations, represent the fastest growing and potentially fastest growing alterative to the Cuban state in providing basic services and information to the Cuban people.” (P. 20; emphasis added.)

The rest of this report makes clear that the Commission believed that only evangelical Christian groups were authentically independent and should be used by the U.S. to build a free Cuba. According to this report, they had “the trust of the people and the means to organize through an existing social network of communications and distribution channels at all levels of society.”[i]

The report also called for the U.S. to avoid trying to use the Cuban Council of Churches, which the U.S. Commission believed had been “taken over by the Castro regime in the early 1960s and used as a means to control the Protestant churches.” (P. 64.) However, most of the clergy and laity of churches that belong to the Council, the Commission asserted, were “not sympathasizers of Castro and the communists and therefore should not be denied assistance or a role in Cuban religious affairs due to ‘guilt by association.” (P. 64)

The second other U.S. program directed against Cuba was the George W. Bush Administration’s 2005 creation of the position of Cuba Transition Coordinator in the State Department to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. Or in the words of then-Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, the position’s purpose was to “accelerate the demise of Castro’s tyranny.” In more practical terms, this position was charged with allocating millions of dollars in U.S. funding to Cuban dissidents and their U.S. supporters.

The third other program directed against Cuba is Radio y Televisión Martí, a radio and television broadcaster based in Miami, Florida that is financed by the U.S. Government (Broadcasting Board of Governors) and that transmits pro-democracy newscasts to Cuba.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Reports on Cuba

Another U.S. commission—the Commission on International Religious Freedom– in its annual reports consistently has been very critical of that freedom in Cuba.

This Commission has placed Cuba in its “Watch List,” now called its “Tier 2” list of countries “where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments are increasing” or is “on the threshold of . . . [‘Countries of Particular Concern’] status—because the  “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe and that at least one, but not all three, of the elements of [the governing statute’s] ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious’ standard is met (e.g., the violations are egregious but not systematic or ongoing).”

The Commission apparently based its very negative appraisal of Cuba in its most recent  report for 2012 (issued in 2013) on the following grounds with respect to the Cuban government:

  •  alleged arrests and mistreatment of evangelical pastors, especially Pentacostal pastor Reutilio Columbie;
  • alleged arrests of human rights/democracy activists, including the Ladies in White, which prevented them for attending mass; and
  • alleged harassment of Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement and the Western Baptist Convention by allegedly making “short-term arrests of [their] leaders, confiscation, destruction or threats of destruction of church property; harassment and surveillance of church members and their relatives; fines of churches; and threats of losses of job, housing or educational opportunities….”

This Blog’s Prior Critiques of the Commission’s Assessment of Cuba

This blog has criticized the Commission’s reports on Cuban religious freedom for 2010, 2011 and 2012.

First, as the Commission reports themselves proclaim, there have been “improvements” or “[p]ostive developments” for the religious freedom of most of the religious organizations on the island. The most recent report states:

  • “Positive developments for the Catholic Church and major registered Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists, continued over the last year. The State Department reports that religious communities were given greater freedom to discuss politically sensitive issues. Catholic and Protestant Sunday masses were held in more prisons throughout the island. Religious denominations continued to report increased opportunities to conduct some humanitarian and charity work, receive contributions from co-religionists outside Cuba, and obtain Bibles and other religious materials. Small, local processions continued to occur in the provinces in 2012. The government granted the Cuban Council of Churches time for periodic broadcasts early Sunday mornings, and Cuba’s Roman Catholic Cardinal read Christmas and Easter messages on state-run stations.”
  • “Relations between the Catholic Church and Cuban government continued to improve. March 2012 marked the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the Virgin de Caridad de Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba’s patron saint. Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Cuba March 26-29 to participate in the celebrations, at which time he met Fidel Castro and Cuban President Rául Castro. Throughout the year, a replica of the Our Lady of Charity statue toured the island drawing large crowds. Prior to the Pope’s visit, 13 individuals occupied the Church of Charity of Cobre in Central Havana seeking an audience with His Holiness. The government removed, but did not charge, the individuals at the request of the Church.”

Second, the Commission’s statements about positive developments cover, I submit, most of the religious organizations and believers in Cuba, whereas the organizations cited by the Commission for its harsh judgments are the distinct minority. That, of course, does not excuse the Cuban government from committing any of the alleged acts regarding these organizations and believers, if that in fact is the case.

Third, the Commission’s complaint about the treatment of “human rights/democracy activists,” if they are substantiated by evidence, are really complaints about violations of human rights other than religious freedom. Therefore, they do not really belong in the limited scope of the Commission’s mandate.

Fourth, the Commission apparently is unable to put itself in the shoes of the Cuban government, which for many years has had to contend with the super power of the North, which has consistently taken hostile actions against the island, including those of the “Cuba Democracy Assistance” program. The wise words of Matthew 7: 5 come to mind: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Conclusion

This blogger concludes that the revelation yesterday of the U.S. secret social media program for Cuba as part of the U.S.’ so called “Cuba Democracy Assistance” programs should raise serious questions about the legitimacy of the conclusions on Cuban religious freedom coming from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Specifically, there should be an independent investigation of whether Cuba’s Apostolic Reformation Movement, its Western Baptist Convention and pastor Reutilio Columbie have received or are receiving any funding or other support from the U.S. Government, including USAID, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department and the Commission on International Religious Freedom itself. I hope that this is not the case.

More generally, such an investigation should determine whether the harshly negative views of the Commission on International Religious Freedom are being driven by the philosophy and objectives of the Cuba Assistance Programs. Again I hope this is not the case.

———————————–

[1] The Cuban government also reacted to the AP article by saying in Granma it “confirms the repeated complaints of the Cuban government. It shows once again that the U.S. government has not given up its subversive plans against Cuba, which aim to create situations of destabilization in the country to bring about change in our political system and which continues to devote multimillion dollar budgets each year. The U.S. government must respect international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and, therefore, cease its illegal and covert actions against Cuba, which are rejected by the Cuban people and the international public opinion.”

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Audience with Pope Francis

President Obama & Pope Francis
          President Obama &               Pope Francis 

On March 27th U.S. President Barack Obama had an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican followed by the President’s meeting with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, its Secretary for Relations with States.

Afterwards the Vatican issued a press release that said, “During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”

The press release continued, “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”

Also afterwards at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.  I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his.  One is the issues [sic] of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.”

“[T]hose of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue.  And he’s discussed in the past . . . the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.”

The President continued, “[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.  There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians.  And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.  But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.”

“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

“In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on — other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him — was immigration reform.  And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families.  I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.”

The President added that the Pope “did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act.  In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.  And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt.  Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”

The President said, “I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

In addition, the President said we “actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness.  In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.  I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with.  And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue.  His job is a little more elevated.  We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”

“I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about.  I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people — who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.”

Moreover, according to the President, for the Pope “to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs . . . reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are.  It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy.  Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.”

The President concluded his press conference comments on the audience by saying the Pope is “hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively.  And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.”

The President also separately stated the following after the audience:

  • “I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a  belief in politics and in life, the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk liked you or share your philosophy—that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Leaders of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Criticize U.S. Government for Alleged Failure To Promote Religious Freedom

The top officials of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom –Its Chairperson, Robert P. George, and its Vice Chairperson, Katrina Lantos Swett –recently have been entering the public forum to discuss that freedom. A prior post reviewed their recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Religious Freedom Is About More Than Religion.”

The Criticism

Now in the Washington Post they have criticized the U.S. Government for its alleged failure to comply with the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (“the Act“). They assert that the statute requires all administrations to conduct annual reviews and designations of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations.’” Unfortunately, they continue, “neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders.”

Now, the Commission leaders say, “a key deadline for action [is] arriving this month, [and] it is time to confront this unwise failure to act.”As a result, they ask Congress to press the executive branch “to apply the International Religious Freedom Act fully and the country designation process decisively.”

Analysis

George and Swett apparently refer to section 402 (b)(1) (A) of the Act, which states:

  • “Not later than September 1 of each year, the President shall review the status of religious freedom in each foreign country to determine whether the government of that country has engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom in that country during the preceding 12 months or since the date of the last review of that country under this subparagraph, whichever period is longer. The President shall designate each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated violations described in this subparagraph as a country of particular concern for religious freedom.”

Guidance on this requirement is provided in section 402(b)(1)(B) of the Act, which says that such presidential review “shall be based upon information contained in the latest [State Department} Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the [State Department’s] Annual Report [on International Religious Freedom], and on any other evidence available and shall take into account any findings or recommendations by the [U.S.] Commission [on International Religious Freedom] with respect to the foreign country.”

Given these statutory provisions, I think George and Swett erroneously say that various administrations have failed to comply with section 402 (b)(1)(A) of the Act. That provision, as I read it, invests the president with the exclusive authority to make the determination of whether another country has “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”  In so doing, the president determination shall be based on any available evidence, including said reports by the State Department and the Commission.

Moreover, Ms. Swett undercut her and Mr. George’s criticism when she acknowledged the Commission has limited authority when compared with the U.S. Department of State and implicitly the U.S. President.

In an interview about whether or not the U.S. should grant a visa to an Indian politician, she said, “The State Department has a more difficult job than we do because they are balancing American security interests, American commercial interests, American cultural interests, American exchange interests, a whole range of diplomatic interests, and one of the things that they are putting into that mix is the defense of our fundamental values, human rights and religious freedom and other such things. Because of its much larger portfolio the State Department cannot be as single-minded as we are.”