Global Religious Freedom Law is Ineffective, Panel Says

A representative from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom testified before the House on global religious liberty.

Religious Freedom experts before the Subcommittee on National Security for the House Oversight and Regulations Committee, June 13, 2013.
Religious Freedom experts before the Subcommittee on National Security for the House Oversight and Regulations Committee, June 13, 2013. (photo: Addie Mena/CNA)

WASHINGTON — Speaking before a congressional subcommittee, religious liberty experts warned that a U.S. law passed 15 years ago to promote international religious freedom needs stronger enforcement.

“This hearing is important because religious freedom is important: it is a pivotal human right that is both central to U.S. history and heritage and affirmed by international treaties and obligations,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett.

“This hearing also is both important and timely given that religious freedom also is a practical necessity crucial to both the security of the U.S. and the world.”

Lantos Swett, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — an independent, bipartisan group that advises the government on global religious liberty matters — testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security on June 13.

She and other witnesses discussed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which enshrined within U.S. foreign policy a commitment to condemn violations of religious liberty and assist other nations in promoting of religious freedom.

Witnesses argued that the law has been largely ineffective. They noted that the June 13 event marked the first hearing on the implementation of the law since it was passed.

Also discussed was the absence of Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Although she had been invited and confirmed her availability, the State Department declined to make the ambassador available, citing a policy forbidding department employees from sitting on panels with members of non-governmental organizations.

However, the subcommittee’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, argued that high-ranking State Department officials, including Ambassador Johnson Cook, have sat on Congressional and private panels with non-governmental representatives on numerous occasions.

Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, said that bureaucratic restraints prevent the ambassador from enacting significant policy changes.

He observed that the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom reports to a lower-ranking official and does not attend high-level State Department meetings.

Farr pointed to studies showing that “75% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted.”

Although the promotion of religious freedom reflects our country’s principles and promotes our national interests — including U.S. security — it has not been a high priority for any of the recent presidential administrations, he said, pointing to a lack of evidence that efforts under the International Religious Freedom Act “have substantially improved the status of religious freedom in any country.”

He criticized structural deficiencies including a lack of diplomat training about why religious freedom is important and how to advance it.
In addition, he noted a “diminution of religious freedom” within the U.S. government, saying that while historically, “religion in the public square was considered crucial for the health of democracy,” recent administrations have seen “religious freedom as a private matter, with few legitimate public purposes.”

Causes such as the “right to love” have received more attention and concrete action from the administration than religious freedom, which is largely respected in only rhetoric, he said.

Mahmood Ahmad, assistant national director of public affairs for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, said the connection between religious freedom and global peace and security is underappreciated. He noted that “terrorists are often brainwashed into thinking that their acts have a religious purpose,” leading to severe human rights abuses around the globe.

Emphasizing the need to prioritize religious freedom in countries with persecution, Ahmad urged the State Department to empower the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom to enact changes based on department reports.

Panel members also called for an increased focus on religious freedom at the international level, through agencies such as the United Nations.

In addition, they stressed the need for institutional changes within the State Department, such as harsher sanction on countries that disrespect religious freedom, support for religious liberty advocates abroad and the reinstatement of a Special Advisor on International Religious Freedom to the National Security Council.