WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s recent forays in foreign relations have provoked a mixed reaction from experts on religious freedom.
Some say the U.S. needs to send a stronger message to the world against the worsening international trend towards persecution of minority faiths.
Take Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s February trip to China, for example. There, she sparked controversy by saying, “We have to continue to press them [on human rights], but our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.”
Angela Wu of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said Clinton’s dismissive comments were “profoundly disappointing for believers in China.”
“Whether you are a Muslim, a Catholic or a house-church Protestant, knowing that the secretary of state of the United States has defended you is very important,” Wu said. “So her actual remarks must have been incredibly discouraging.”
Others say Clinton was merely stating the obvious.
There has also been plenty of reaction — negative and positive — to President Obama’s soft approach to religious freedom, with some saying it is precisely what is needed.
In his June 4 speech in Cairo, Egypt, Obama took a hard line with the 9/11 attack by Islamic terrorists, but his references to Middle Eastern religious persecution were criticized for being vague and quickly “balanced” with mea culpas for American offenses.
“He barely mentioned religious freedom at all,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington.
Shea, who also sits on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog body set up by Congress in 1998, termed Obama’s references to current American acts of intolerance “false analogies.”
Left unmentioned, for example, were any of an abundance of Muslim examples of persecution ranging, said Shea, from officially sanctioned hate literature against Jews and refusal to permit the building of churches to imprisonment and murder of Christians.
Meanwhile, said Obama, “rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation.” Shea believes Obama was referring to “restrictions on donating to Muslim charities connected to terrorist groups.”
Blue Nile Will Run Red
A second omission — one with potentially tragic results — according to Shea, was the lack of any reference to the Muslim jihad against Christians and animists in Sudan. “Two million Christians were killed” in the war, she noted.
But the peace treaty President George W. Bush brokered is “on shaky ground,” Shea said, and could have used support from Obama. If the war resumes, she said, “the Blue Nile will run red with blood.”
As for Clinton’s remarks, Shea termed them “a sweeping reversion to the realpolitik of the Kissinger era. Henry Kissinger advised former President Richard Nixon on national security and was secretary of state from 1971-1977. Shea characterized the human-rights component of this “politics of realism” as simply: “Let the other countries do what they want.”
Another critic of Obama’s Cairo speech was Time columnist Charles Krauthammer, who termed the president’s efforts to equate entirely unequal American and Western and Islamic intolerance “cheap condescension” and a distortion of reality.
However, Arch Puddington, research director at Freedom House, a Washington think tank promoting worldwide political and human rights, took a different view. “In general, the president’s speech was positive. It urged religious tolerance in the Arab world,” Puddington told the Register.
As for Clinton’s comments, Puddington said, “Maybe she shouldn’t have said it the way she did, but she was only telling the truth.” The United States has never, in Puddington’s view, been able to stand firm on human-rights issues with China. “We did with the Soviet Union, but we never have with China, not under Republicans, Democrats, conservatives or liberals.”
Puddington said the situation in China got worse during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The Communist Party leadership have tried either to control all religious believers or to suppress them, including Catholics.
The Becket Fund’s Wu takes a different view of Chinese diplomacy: “I know their officials pay close attention to what ours say.” When the U.S. stresses human rights, the Chinese government releases prisoners. “Maybe it’s just a symbolic gesture, but it’s a very important one to the people let out of jail,” she said.
The United States has more leverage in the Middle East than in China, says Puddington, but the Bush administration used it chiefly to manage the Israel-Palestine and Iraq issues and showed little interest in the survival of religious minorities like Catholics or Baha’is. “Under Obama,” he said, “I expect this to continue.”
In Shea’s view, the Arab world is being radicalized by Wahhabism, an extreme variant of Sunni Islam actively promoted by Saudi Arabia. Saudi-written textbooks sent to Islamic schools worldwide preach that Muslim heretics and converts to other religions “can be murdered.”
In Saudi Arabia itself, outside of the foreign embassies, non-Islamic worship is prohibited.
A report recently released by the Center for Religious Freedom, “The Range of Religious Freedom,” says the worst persecutors are either communist regimes such as China and North Korea, or radical Muslim ones such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. A belt of countries across North Africa and the Middle East all demonstrate low tolerance of non-Muslim religions — and of non-conforming Muslims. Hindu India scores high in terms of political rights, but not religious freedom. Indian Christians and Muslims have suffered heavily from “an upsurge in recent years of a militant Hinduism” that has led to “large-scale massacres.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says the most pressing threat currently to religious freedom is religion itself, or, at least “religious extremism.”
In its 2009 report, the commission identified 13 countries so oppressive of religion they merited U.S. sanctions: Burma, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Six, including China and Iran, have drawn minor trade sanctions, but the government has refused to act against Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.
Puddington says when the U.S. government digs in its heels, nonprofit organizations need to “get the word to the American people so that they push the policy makers.”
Wu wants the U.S. government to be more proactive. “We need more training on religion for our own diplomatic corps,” she said. “And our democracy-building and rule-of-law programs we run in other countries need to add a religious freedom component.”
Also, she says, President Obama needs to fill the vacant position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Catholic theologian Michael Novak, former human rights ambassador to the United Nations, agrees: “Obama should fill it, and fill it wisely, and use it as a bully pulpit.”
Religious freedom is “inextricably linked,” he said, with other political and human rights and with the prosperity enjoyed by the United States, Western Europe and the British Commonwealth.
“In the Jewish and Christian faiths, we believe we are created in the image of God,” he said, which means being creative on many levels, including technologically and economically. Novak said Obama should spread this good news more vigorously than he has done since his election — and more than was done by the Bush administration.
Steve Weatherbe writes from
Victoria, British Columbia.