Monday, 3 October 2011

Protecting Religious Freedom

Protecting religious freedom
Published: Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

With recent reports documenting a rise in restrictions on religious beliefs and practices around the world, it seems like an especially bad time to eliminate the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — an independent, bi-partisan body created in 1998 to advise the president and Congress. Yet that's exactly what Congress is alarmingly close to doing. A bill to reauthorize the commission is stalled in the Senate because one senator has put an anonymous hold on it that, under the Senate's rules, prevents further action. If the legislation isn't taken up, the commission will be forced to close its doors on Nov. 18.

This would be tragic.

Research indicates a strong link between a lack of religious freedom and the incubation of religious terrorism, which thrives in environments where closed religious orthodoxy dominates. However, when believers, whether of the majority or minority faith, are allowed to organize, express their views and participate politically, violence and extremism have been shown to dissipate.

More importantly, religious freedom is a fundamental human right. It is enshrined as our first freedom in the Bill of Rights and has been acknowledged as a universal human right in the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international documents. Standing up for religious freedom is a moral imperative.

The world, however, is facing a humanitarian crisis as millions of people are tortured, raped, or imprisoned because of their religious beliefs. The United States cannot stand silent as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and other adherents around the world are systematically discriminated against and even killed for their beliefs.

A strong Commission on International Religious Freedom can play a vital role in this regard. In the case of Sudan, for example, the commission recommended that then-President George W. Bush appoint a special envoy to Sudan, which he did: former Sen. John Danforth, who brokered a peace deal that ended a civil war.

Religious liberty is not a partisan issue. Both the Senate and the House voted unanimously in 1998 for the International Religious Freedom Act, which founded the commission.

More recently, the House last week voted overwhelmingly in favor of reauthorization (391-21). One senator should not be allowed to simply kill this important commission without coming forward and stating his objections to it as part of an open debate. If he doesn't have any objections but is attempting to gain some other sort of political advantage, as is rumored, then it's a breathtakingly cynical move for which he should be ashamed.

Some have offered fair criticisms of the commission, and the current bill seeks to address areas of potential reform to make it more effective. The commission should be able to do more than rhetorically scold countries that violate standards of religious freedom. It should regularly make concrete policy recommendations for folding religious freedom provisions into existing counter-terrorism and democracy assistance programs.

n his 2009 Cairo speech and again this spring, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of religious tolerance as a cornerstone of healthy societies and a universal human right. But the president's actions have not matched his words. By dithering on the appointment of an ambassador of religious freedom and allowing slights to the commission, the current administration has shown indifference to the International Religious Freedom Act and its mandate to take religious freedom seriously in international affairs.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must lead the State Department in thoughtfully integrating issues of religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy because religion and issues of religious liberty play a huge role in current international events. If this Congress and this administration allow the Commission on International Religious Freedom to die, it will send an enormously negative message to the world about the importance America places on religious freedom.

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