US defense of global religious freedom wanes under Obama, panel says
A bipartisan national commission finds President Obama wanting when it comes to defending and promoting global religious freedom. It names 13 countries as serious violators.
The Obama administration has been criticized since it took office for putting realist foreign-policy goals ahead of more idealistic principles such as democracy and human rights. Now a bipartisan national commission finds President Obama wanting when it comes to defending and promoting global religious freedom, as well.Skip to next paragraph
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The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) used the occasion of its annual report unveiled Thursday to question the Obama administration’s commitment to worldwide religious freedom. This year’s report – which named 13 countries including China, Iraq, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia as serious violators of religious freedom – had stinging words for the US government, saying the place for religious freedom in US foreign policy “seems to shrink year after year for the White House and the State Department.”
The USCIRF was created by Congress in 1998 as part of a broader effort to require the government to include religious freedom in its foreign-policy goals. One feature of the 1998 legislation was creation of an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom – a post Obama has yet to fill, as the commission annual report notes.
In addition, commission chairman Leonard Leo says the shrinking importance of religious freedom can be seen in the Obama administration's evolving rhetoric on the issue. Whereas Mr. Obama came into office speaking of “freedom of religion,” Mr. Leo says, the president more recently has opted for speaking about “freedom of worship,” which the USCIRF chairman says has a more limited connotation.
“Freedom of religion” is more broadly understood as a universal right and more specific in its referral to religions than is the more ephemeral phrase “freedom of worship,” some religious experts say.
Critics say Obama's recent preference for “worship” raises doubts about the administration’s determination to aggressively press for the rights of religious minorities in “friendly” countries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan – all of which receive billions of dollars in US aid. The president referred to “freedom of worship,” for example, during his Asia trip last fall, when he was castigated by rights groups for downplaying the issue of religious freedom in China and the status of the Dalai Lama.