WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the world is “sliding backwards” when it comes to guaranteeing religious freedom, while the issue in her own country is reaching the boiling point.
Speaking July 30 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the former first lady said, “When we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking, the answer is sobering.”
“Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising,” Clinton said. “When it comes to this human right, this key feature of stable, secure, peaceful societies, the world is sliding backwards.”
However, Clinton focused solely on the issue in other parts of the world, while the United States is engaged in threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.
Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, noted the irony of the moment.
“When Secretary Clinton warns about places where ‘If your beliefs don’t have government approval, beware,’ you have to ask yourself, ‘Like here?’” Royal said.
Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia and a well-known advocate for religious and human rights, said he had not heard the speech, but insisted that the administration’s record speaks for itself.
“As St. Francis said, ‘I’d rather see a sermon than hear one,’ and whatever Secretary Clinton said, the Obama administration has a worse record on human and religious rights than any other administration.”
“You don’t find them aggressively pushing for religious freedom and human rights,” said Wolf, recalling that the Obama administration hosted a state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, even as the regime held Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in prison and persecutes both Buddhists and Catholics.
Wolf said that, unlike the Reagan administration, the Obama administration makes no attempt to meet with those who suffer from persecution or to speak out on their behalf.
Clinton’s speech coincided with the U.S. State Department’s release of its annual “International Religious Freedom Report.” The report painted a picture of declining religious freedom in many parts of the world.
In 2011, according to the report, “governments increasingly used blasphemy, apostasy and defamation of religion laws to restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities, and limit freedom of expression.”
The year also saw “a rising tide of anti-Semitism,” influenced in part by political events in the Middle East, which led to the destruction of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in France, increased Holocaust denial and the growing popularity of an openly anti-Semitic party, the Jobbik party, in Hungary.
China, one of the “chronic violators of religious freedom,” was singled out for a notable decrease in religious liberty in 2011, including increasing restrictions on Tibetan monks and nuns in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas.
Uighur Muslims and other religious groups that don’t belong to China’s official state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” also suffered from government crackdowns. Christian house churches were especially impacted, according to the report.
Vietnam, where “Christians, in particular, faced challenges,” was cited for restrictions on religious freedom. The government has not allowed publication of the Bible in the modern H’mong language, despite agreeing to do so, and held religious prisoners in 2011. Buddhist monks were threatened — and in one case severely beaten.
Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Myanmar, where the report did note that some restrictions had been lessened, were among the countries designated “Countries of Particular Concern” in the report.
The report said that the Coptic Christians in Egypt, where a government led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has just come to power, are still undergoing persecution. The document recalled that in October Egyptian security guards attacked a predominantly Coptic group of demonstrators in Cairo, killing 25 people and injuring 350. Government officials have not been held accountable, according to the report.
Clinton said that she was “concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don’t know if that’s going to quickly be resolved. But since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased. We don’t think that there’s been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws.”
Clinton said she had had “very emotional, very personal conversations with Christians in Egypt, who are deeply anxious about what the future holds for them and their country.”
She appeared eager to give Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s government the benefit of the doubt. She said that when she was recently in Egypt “[the issue of] religious freedom was very present behind closed doors and in the streets. President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens and a woman. So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was.”
Libya was one of the countries where Clinton saw improvement. She said that the new Libyan regime is not enforcing some of the old laws that restricted religious freedom. Instead of repressing speech that might offend Muslims, Clinton said Libyans now see the value of “countering [such speech] with more speech that reveals the emptiness of the insults and lies.”
Georgetown University’s Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, who addressed the U.S. bishops in Atlanta in June on growing threats to religious freedom, had a generally favorable reaction to Clinton’s speech.
“Overall, I think this was a very good speech,” said Farr, who is considered a foremost authority on the issue of religious liberty, in an email to the Register. “I particularly liked the fact that the secretary talked about advancing religious freedom as a way to counter violent religious extremism.”
“And — in one of the best parts of her remarks, again, in response to the final question — she said that nations must understand that they cannot be successful, secure or stable without religious freedom,” Farr said.
However, Farr had two concerns about Clinton’s speech.
“The first,” he said, “is that if the secretary of state believes that religious freedom can contribute to the success, security and stability of nations — such as Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, each of whose stability is vital to the national security of the United States — then why has her State Department allocated so little authority and resources to the official responsible for advancing international religious freedom?
“Why is there no overarching diplomatic and national security strategy to advance religious freedom? Why does the [ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom] not report directly to the secretary of state, as do ambassadors-at-large for global women’s issues and global AIDS? Why is the IRF ambassador isolated within the department, many levels removed from the secretary, with virtually no authority and very few resources? Why is there so little attention paid to religious freedom on the part of State Department counterterrorism officials?”
Farr also found Clinton’s view of the content of religious freedom — what people and communities may do under the rubric of religious freedom — “quite narrow.”
“She referred to belief, worship, forming the conscience, making moral choices for ourselves, our families and our communities,” Farr said. “All of these are important constituents of religious freedom. But there is a public aspect of religious liberty that she rarely discusses, and certainly does not integrate into U.S. foreign policy: the right of religious individuals and communities to act publicly within both civil and political life.”
“This is important in places like Egypt or other Muslim-majority nations that are struggling to develop democracies,” Farr added. “As she noted, religious freedom has been shown to discourage religious extremism. But in Muslim countries, it is not simply the private right to worship that helps accomplish this goal.
“The key is inviting Muslim communities into the political life of the nation, accepting the benefits of, and the limits on, doing so. The key limit is full equality under the law for all religious individuals and communities.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.