On June 13, 2013 the first Congressional hearing for the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was held since former President Clinton signed the bill.IRFA states the U.S. Government must “strengthen [its] advocacy” of religious freedom, but fifteen years later religious persecution has reached its peak worldwide.
According to a 2012 PEW Research Center’s Forum On Religion and Public Life report, “three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion,” a five percent rise from the previous year.
IRFA was passed with the purpose of monitoring global religious freedom by sanctioning countries whose government violently suppresses its citizens’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and worship. Three entities were created by IRFA to ensure its effectiveness – an International Religious Freedom Office within the State Department headed by an Ambassador-at-Large, a bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and a Special Advisor on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council.
The hearing’s panel included five witnesses:
- Katrina Lantos Swett, Ph.D., Chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
- Thomas F. Farr, Ph.D., Director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs
- Ms. Tina Ramirez, veteran religious freedom activist and President of Hardwired, Inc.
- N. Mahmood Ahmad, Assistant National Director of Public Affairs at Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA
- Chris Seiple, Ph.D., President of Institute for Global Engagement
Several speakers noted Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook’s absence from the panel, although she reportedly accepted the invitation to testify.
According to Subcommittee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the State Department notified Johnson Cook of the scheduled hearing in May. However, after learning Johnson Cook would be sharing a panel with witnesses from Non-Government Organizations, the State Department refused to send any representative. Chaffetz called Johnson Cook’s absence “terribly disappointing” and “a waste of Congress’ time.”
The panelists expressed their discontent that while USCIRF annually designates Countries of Particular Concern (CPC’s) for the State Department to consider, the State Department has not named a single CPC since August 2011, although it is mandatory for it to do so annually. Designated CPC’s lose their status after two years, so the State Department has until August to release names, Lantos Swett said.
Religious persecution is a global security issue, Lantos Swett emphasized, citing 9/11. There are countless examples of government officials or private citizens carrying out violent acts in the name of religion, both at home and cross-border.
“Millions are vulnerable to violent abuse, such as torture, rape, “disappearances”, unjust imprisonment, and unjust execution, because of their religious beliefs and practices, or those of their tormenters,” Farr echoed, citing the current Syrian civil war, which “in a large part stems from generations of religious persecution.” When governments go unchecked, or allow their citizens to go unchecked, religious violence rises, leading to “social, economic, and political instability,” Farr said.
Ramirez explained that religious persecution is a human rights issue representing an autocratic government. The first thing a government targets when it wants to suppress its people is freedom of thought and conscience, without which a society cannot “consider what is right and just,” she said.
Currently, our government is giving off the air that it will tolerate, and even “negotiate with state sponsors of terrorism,” Ramirez said. When President Obama meets with foreign governments (either oppressive, or tolerant of oppression) there is “infrequent discussion of religious freedom.”
The panelists offered a few options to advance religious freedom overseas, such as designating CPC’s, which would put pressure on countries that rely on the U.S. for aid. Cutting even a portion of that aid would affect their economy. Another element is training diplomats about “what religious freedom is and why it is important,” which is “a sensible and necessary element of any worldwide foreign policy initiative,” Farr said.
All panelists echoed the point that the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom has not been utilized to its potential since its formation, nor has it been given the status it needs to act effectively. If any real change will come, it has to start there, the panelists said. Congress members present appeared receptive and engaged by what the panel had to say.
Johnson Cook’s absence mirrored the point that IRFA is not taken seriously in the U.S. Government. The U.S. has the power, weight, and security to sanction CPC’s, so why is it remaining silent?