(This article was written as a contribution to a Liberty Magazine Round Table discussion. Read the other responses and contribute your thoughts at http://www.libertymagazine.org/index.php?id=1665 )

By Michael D. Peabody –

In August 2011, the Pew Research Institute released a study, Rising Restrictions on Religion, which found that more than a third of the population of the world lives in nations where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. Only 1% live in countries where things are getting better.

In 1998 when Congress, as part of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), approved the creation of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Congress believed that it was important that the USCIRF operate as an independent governmental body to monitor executive branch activities related to religious freedom and to make recommendations for Presidential action when it found abuses.

Under the IRFA, the Commission has communicated with embassies around the world to find out the state of freedom, and has produced reports outlining the state of freedom around the world. This includes identifying "countries of particular concern" (CPC) that have engaged in torture, prolonged imprisonment, or "other flagrant denial[s] of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons." Once a country is tagged as a CPC, per the IRFA, the government must, subject to the right to waiver, engage anything from bilateral agreements to sanctions in order to encourage improvements. There are eight CPCs at the present time.

The Secretary of State can then make recommendations as to how to address these issues. The White House has yet to issue any new actions or sanctions against a CPC solely for violations of religious freedom, and instead has placed religious freedom issues, if they are mentioned at all, under the umbrella of existing sanctions. The result is that religious freedom issues have gotten lost in the shuffle. In short, under the IRFA, the United States is supposed to indicate that a portion of, or the entirety of sanctions being imposed depending on the situation, is due to religious freedom violations.

In the past, the United States was relatively isolationist when dealing with religious freedom issues in other countries, leaving those issues to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The U.S. instead worked to preserve its own interests around the world. As an indirect result, many otherwise restrictive nations were forced into situations of regime change resulting in increased religious freedom within their borders. For instance, after an extended Cold War essentially bankrupted the repressive Soviet Union, its citizens enjoyed a period of unparalleled religious freedom. Today, the State Department has to tackle a wide range of pressing issues involving direct threats to the United States including terrorism, threats of a nuclear Iran, chaos in the Middle East, warfare on multiple fronts, and many other issues.

As a result, the government is not always in a diplomatic position to address religious freedom issues separately. As I write this, the United States is experiencing unprecedented tension with Pakistan regarding the War on Terror and the possibility of significant armed conflict seems nearly imminent. Pakistan is also a CPC, and in the midst of this if USCIRF were to operate "properly" the President should also be levying sanctions against Pakistan for the way it treats its own citizens when in reality the flow of U.S. dollars to Pakistan may be the only thing preventing all-out war.

The USCIRF should be continued – it has an important function as a monitor of international religious freedom, but as long as the State Department is also engaged in its fundamental duty of protecting the interests of the United States above those of any other nation, it will not be able to fulfill its complete charter of recommending direct action against hostile countries without facing a great deal of suspicion of either diplomatic or religious mission. While many hostile nations promote a particular religious worldview with impunity, and act under color of that faith as they carry out persecution, the USCIRF must be careful in contrast not to be seen as fulfilling a mission designed to extend American Christianity. If it is perceived across borders and language barriers as a low key Medieval Crusade, it will lose its effectiveness and be a hindrance to international diplomacy.

Religions cross borders, cultures, and languages, and thus the promotion of freedom of religion is generally perceived as a mission of peace, not a mission of war. Because the parameters of religion differ from national borders, unless a hostile nation changes its internal character, religious freedom abuses will continue either officially or unofficially.

In a perfect world, the tasks of the USCIRF would probably be best handled by the United Nations, but that body seems unlikely to move in a productive direction along these lines anytime soon. The reality is, as uncomfortable as it might seem, aside from the Holy See, there is no independent recognized country in the world that can carry an olive branch of religious peace without an overt direct threat of violence or sanctions. It would therefore appear incumbent on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and religious organizations to assert religious freedom using whatever peaceful and cooperative methods that are available.

This does not mean that USCIRF should be allowed to wither on the vine – its role as a monitor of religious freedom is invaluable and it establishes this sense in the minds of Americans and shows the global community that this nation holds onto and respects these inalienable values regardless of whether they can be imposed on other nations. The USCIRF is one mechanism by which the United States can remain at the forefront of promoting the ideals of freedoms of speech, conscience, religion, and belief.


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