Religious Freedom Report Lacks Specifics, Experts Say

Adelle M. Banks | Religion News Service | Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Religious Freedom Report Lacks Specifics, Experts Say


October 29, 2009

WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Religious freedom experts called for more specifics in the State Department's policies on international religious liberty, but welcomed a new report that highlights abuse faced by people of faith throughout the world.

Released by the State Department on Monday (Oct. 26), the status report on religious freedom in 198 countries and territories pays particular attention to authoritarian governments that control religious expression or are hostile to religious minorities.

"President Obama has raised religious freedom in his speeches abroad without those sentiments being translated into concrete policy actions," said Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "and our hope is that this report will be the administration's call to action."

The independent commission also disagrees with the State Department on the status of religious freedom in some countries. In particular, the USCIRF has called for Pakistan and Vietnam to be added to the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern."

The State Department report notes that "serious" and "significant" problems remain in those countries. Michael Posner, assistant secretary for the department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told reporters he hopes new the list of "countries of particular concern" will be made public by January.

Thomas Farr, the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, said the report shows an improvement in U.S. policy on the issue, but more than incremental progress is needed.

"It is an approach that focuses on people who are being persecuted, as it should, but it tends to talk about cases rather than the structural problems that lead to persecution," said Farr, citing China as an example.

The report notes that China's "repression of religious freedom remained severe in Tibetan areas." It also said: "Citizens do not have the ability to bring legal action based on the Constitution's guarantees of religious freedom."

Religious freedom experts knocked Obama earlier this month (Oct.) for refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, whom China considers a "splittist." The White House said Obama will meet with the exiled Buddhist leader after he returns from a summit in China next month.

Farr, who directed the religious freedom office from 1999 to 2003, criticized the administration for not yet naming an ambassador at large for religious freedom. But he praised its opposition to efforts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference to seek "defamation of religions" resolutions at the United Nations.

In her remarks introducing the report Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted her disagreement with such proposals, saying an "individual's ability to practice his or her religion has no bearing on others' freedom of speech."

In addition to chronicling restrictions and improvements in religious freedom, the report also included what Clinton called a "special focus" on international initiatives promoting interfaith dialogue.

"We are encouraged by this growing recognition by governments and religious leaders that extremism is a common enemy and that freedom and respectful religious coexistence are critical to our shared future," the report's executive summary concluded.

Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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