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.

By , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.

White House officials reject suggestions that Obama is playing down religious freedom in his foreign-policy aims. They note, as does the USCIRF report, that he spoke about “freedom of religion” in both his Cairo speech and his Ankara speech in 2009.

Of the 13 countries the commission’s report cites for “egregious” violations of religious freedom, eight are holdovers from last year and five are new to the list. The report recommends that the State Department newly designate Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam as violators. The eight it says should be “redesignated” are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The commission highlights the deterioration of religious freedom it says it witnessed in Nigeria over three fact-finding trips there in 2009. The report concludes that a wave of sectarian violence intensified over the past year, but that not one perpetrator of the Christian-Muslim violence has been brought to justice.

It also focuses on the plight of China’s Uighur Muslims, chronicling what it says are China’s repressive policies designed to “crush Uighur rights to religious education and to appoint their own religious leaders.”

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