2019
January
09
Wednesday

By most accounts, the Brexit legislative machine currently grinding away in Westminster is capable of producing only two outcomes: a Brexit built on the British government’s proposed deal with the European Union, or a no-deal Brexit that many view as an economic catastrophe in waiting.

As it stands now, Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan looks likely to be defeated when it comes up for a vote in Parliament on Jan. 15. But Parliament has been acting to prevent no-deal as well, in an effort to protect Britain from the risks of crashing out of the EU without any agreements.

On Tuesday, a cross-party bloc of Conservative and Labour members of Parliament voted to attach an anti no-deal amendment to a bill. Basically a poison pill triggered by a “crash out” Brexit, the amendment could be the first of many the bloc uses to dissuade the government from no-deal. And less than 24 hours later, another cross-party bloc voted that, in the event her Brexit deal is rejected, Ms. May must present a plan B for Brexit to Parliament within three days.

All together, it seems an emboldened Parliament is setting itself against a no-deal Brexit. Though much remains uncertain, especially with May’s plan in doubt, it suggests the Brexit machine may yet be turned toward a third outcome yet undetermined.

Now for our five stories of the day.

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1. A shutdown fight that’s about much more than a wall

The impasse over funding for a barrier on the US-Mexico border reflects broader disagreements between President Trump and Democrats over questions of security and American identity.

Arthur

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In the Trump era, the big issues of the day often live on two planes: the actual and the meta, the issues themselves and the outsize meaning they take on at a time of pitched partisan conflict. And so it is with President Trump’s battle with congressional Democrats to secure $5.7 billion for a United States-Mexico border wall. The partial government shutdown is at Day 19 over the impasse, after dueling televised statements Tuesday night that offered no way out. But the wall itself – and the overarching issue of immigration reform – is only part of the story. For Mr. Trump, the wall was a core campaign promise, even a key to his election, as it came to stand for his effort to defend Americans’ safety and identity. The government shutdown over wall funding can also be seen as an effort to disrupt “business as usual” in Washington, another Trump promise. “In many ways, he is reassuring his base that he’s still very much committed to this principle here that helped get him elected,” says Gary Rose, a political scientist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

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A shutdown fight that’s about much more than a wall

In the Trump era, the big issues of the day often live on two planes: the actual and the meta, the issues themselves and the outsize meaning they take on at a time of pitched partisan conflict.

And so it is with President Trump’s battle with congressional Democrats to secure $5.7 billion for a United States-Mexico border wall. The partial government shutdown is at Day 19 over the impasse, after dueling televised statements Tuesday night that offered no way out. Mr. Trump’s visit to the border Thursday is expected to be mainly a photo opportunity to reinforce his case for more wall money.

But the wall itself – and the overarching issue of a US immigration system that both parties agree needs reform – is only part of the story. For Trump, the wall was a core campaign promise, even a key to his election, as it came to stand for his effort to defend Americans’ safety and identity. The government shutdown over wall funding can also be seen as an effort to disrupt “business as usual” in Washington, another Trump promise.

“In many ways, he is reassuring his base that he’s still very much committed to this principle here that helped get him elected,” to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it, says Gary Rose, a political scientist at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

“But in fairness, this is not just pure politics,” he adds. “Immigration is a serious issue, and there is a problem at the border.”

Much of the public discussion has been swamped by debates over the most basic of terms, including whether the situation at the border constitutes a crisis. Trump sprinkled his nine-minute Oval Office statement with that word, including three times in his most memorable line: “This is a humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said.

Fact-checkers have worked overtime to parse almost every presidential utterance, some posting their counterassertions in real time as Trump spoke. Researchers at Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, produced a compendium of their results the morning after.

“It’s true that in recent months the number of people caught trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally has risen, and was actually higher in November ... than it was when Trump was sworn in,” the report says. “But the total remains far below what it was several years ago, before President George W. Bush doubled the number of Border Patrol agents.”

In other contexts, Trump critics argue that the border is in “crisis,” given the recent deaths of two migrant children and the children who remain separated from their parents, even after the administration suspended its policy of family separation at the border.

To Trump voters, a lot of the fact-checking is conducted by liberal media aimed at discrediting the president, and not worthy of attention. Polls show that Republicans still strongly support Trump’s position on an expanded border wall.

In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released Tuesday, 77 percent of Republicans said they want additional border fencing, and 54 percent said they support Trump keeping part of the government closed until Congress approves funding for the wall. 

Overall, however, Trump is losing ground on the shutdown. Some 51 percent of US adults say Trump “deserves most of the blame,” up 4 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted right as the shutdown began, Dec. 21 to 25.

Still, even if he ends up compromising to end the shutdown, Trump probably won’t have to worry about losing his core supporters.

“Public opinion is pretty well set on either side,” says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political discourse at Texas A&M University. “There’s not much room for persuasion.”

Trump has also been considering declaring a national emergency and moving to repurpose Department of Defense funds to add more security structures at the border. Such a move would likely face immediate litigation and deepen his conflict with congressional Democrats.

Before Trump’s statement to the nation Tuesday night, his first as president from the Oval Office, speculation raged that he might use that televised appearance to declare an emergency. Instead, he sought to put more pressure on the Democrats, who made clear they had no intention of giving in to his demands.

“He’s really in a quandary,” says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. “He doesn’t want to look like a loser.”

The obvious way out is a compromise – and polls show the public wants to see more of that in Washington. A handful of Republican senators, including some facing tough reelection fights in 2020, have floated proposals that would end the shutdown immediately in return for a serious focus on immigration reform, including additional border security.

In December, right as the shutdown started, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham co-wrote a column proposing a trade-off: fund the wall in exchange for resolving the immigration status of “Dreamers,” young people who were brought to the US illegally as children.

Various versions of this trade-off have been out there for at least a year, but so far Trump and the Democrats haven’t been willing or able to make it work. Still, the signature of Mr. Gingrich on a wall-for-“Dreamers” proposal is significant.

As speaker in the 1990s, Gingrich played a key role in an extended government shutdown. Now he’s an informal adviser to Trump, and in a Monitor interview before the shutdown started, he talked up compromise with the newly empowered Democrats.

“He has a real opportunity to reach out,” Gingrich said.

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2. Once a nation of joiners, Americans are now suspicious of those who do

Erosion of social groups is a widely recognized US trend. But when those distrustful of such groups eye faith associations, their mistakes can breed fear and jeopardize constitutional protections.

Arthur
Amanda Voisard/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Shahid Shafi speaks in Austin, Texas, in December before members of the State Republican Executive Committee, following a vote in favor of a resolution that opposes an effort by the Tarrant County Republican Party to remove him as vice chair because of his religion. County officials are scheduled to vote Jan. 10.

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The right to form organizations, religious ones in particular, is so foundational to American democracy that it’s enshrined in the First Amendment. Participation in such groups has eroded in recent decades, however, and two men have run into the negative consequences of that trend. Republicans in Tarrant County, Texas, vote Thursday on whether to remove Shahid Shafi from a local party position because he’s Muslim. Brian Buescher, a US District Court nominee, had his qualifications questioned by Senate Democrats because of his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Thus, a worrying social trend has bred constitutional threats. “The Republican Party is a party of religious freedom,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist. “To miss the forest for the trees on something like that is shocking and troubling.” But there are ongoing efforts to reconnect Americans with organizations and people with different political and cultural beliefs, says Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” He adds: “Naturally, the desire to find people who fit our niche will expand to include people who have a different viewpoint.”

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Once a nation of joiners, Americans are now suspicious of those who do

Shahid Shafi and Brian Buescher may not seem to have much in common.

One is a recently naturalized citizen and a trauma surgeon in Southlake, Texas. The other is a lifelong Nebraskan and a lawyer in Omaha.

In recent months they have both run into two old and converging trends in American society. Almost since the country’s founding, Americans set about forming organizations and associations for purposes ranging from religious and social to the political. The concept is so foundational that it is enshrined in the First Amendment. At the same time, American history has also been rife with anxiety and distrust about some of those organizations, from George Washington’s concerns about political parties to the widespread belief that John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would be more loyal to the pope than the Constitution.

This broad participation in social groups and associations has been eroding in recent decades, according to sociologists and political scientists – and that includes participation in local faith communities. On those rarer occasions that they do choose to congregate, Americans are increasingly spending time primarily with people who share similar political and cultural beliefs. A result has been an increase in misunderstanding and fear of others, and when that is applied to religions and religious organizations, constitutional protections could be jeopardized.

Marc Dunkelman argues in his book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community,” that a person’s social universe can be divided into three rings: an innermost ring made up of intimate family and friends; an outermost ring made up of occasional acquaintances with whom they share a common interest, like fans of the same sports team; and a middle ring made up of those in between, people whom they see fairly often at a PTA meeting or a bowling league or a church service.

Americans have been neglecting that middle ring in recent decades, says Professor Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University in Rhode Island.

“There you would have in many cases some variety of people who would have different points of view, and it’s there you would begin to say ‘I don’t agree with this person, I didn’t vote for the same person, but I can understand why,’ ” he adds. “Without those sorts of interactions you begin to assume that everybody on the other side is just completely out to lunch.”

Tarrant County vote

On Thursday, Republicans in Tarrant County in Texas will vote on whether to remove Dr. Shafi from his position as vice chair of the county GOP.

The vote is a culmination of months of objections from a small group of local Republicans in the north Texas county, citing his Muslim faith, to Shafi’s appointment last July.

“Dr. Shafi is a practicing, Mosque-attending muslim [sic] who claims not to follow sharia law or know what it is,” wrote Sara Legvold, a local Republican, on the Facebook page for a group called Protect Texas. “As a practicing muslim that is an overt falsehood. Sharia law is anathema to our Constitution because Islam recognizes no other law but shariah [sic].”

“I believe that the laws of our nation are our Constitution and the laws passed by our elected legislatures – I have never promoted any form of Sharia Law,” Shafi wrote in November. “I fully support and believe in American Laws for American Courts.”

There has been a significant show of support for Shafi, who joined the GOP shortly after becoming a US citizen in 2009, including from high-profile Texas Republicans like Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Despite the backlash and reports of negotiations over the vote, it is scheduled to go ahead on Thursday. 

In recent decades demographers have charted a number of changes in the American religious landscape. The number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has increased, from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014; the number of Americans who seldom or never attend religious services ticked up from 27 percent in 2007 to 30 percent in 2014. Those Americans who do regularly attend religious services are much more likely to travel to attend the services they like best rather than attend neighborhood churches, wrote Robert Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

“When we have everything curated for our own personal consumption, including our worship services, we are absolutely missing out on a really important in-person community,” says Laura Turner, a San Francisco-based religion writer and author of a forthcoming book about the cultural history of anxiety.

Ms. Turner, who recently wrote about the effect of the rise of livestreamed church services, adds that misunderstanding and mischaracterizing religions has been a regular feature of American history. If it’s Islam today, it was Catholicism in the early 20th century, and new Protestant denominations a century earlier.

But other experts have suggested a link between religious attendance and tolerance. In their book “Religion and Politics in the United States,” Kenneth Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown write that religious groups “perform the important task of reminding us that public decisions inescapably involve and reflect values.”

When cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, “they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation,” Peter Beinert wrote in a 2017 article for The Atlantic.

Constitutional implications?

This context helps explain the belief among some in Tarrant County that, because some Muslims believe Islamic law comes ahead of everything else, Shafi does as well. He says he doesn’t.

“I don’t doubt from their perspective they think they’re doing what’s right,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Texas Republican strategist and chairman of the Travis County GOP. “I just think you have a couple bigoted people who are behind the times and fear what they don’t understand.”

“The Republican Party is a party of religious freedom,” he adds. “To miss the forest for the trees on something like that is shocking and troubling.”

The Knights of Columbus, a fraternal Catholic organization, has similar thoughts about two Democratic senators at the moment.

Mr. Buescher, a US District Court nominee and a member of the Knights since he was 18, received pointed written questions in December after appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of particular interest were comments he made on the campaign trail in 2014 that being “an avidly pro-life person” was “simply [his] moral fabric.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked if a woman seeking to enforce her right to an abortion “should have confidence that you will treat her fairly.” In addition, she asked if he would recuse himself from any cases relating to abortion rights, and if he would end his membership in the Knights of Columbus “to avoid any appearance of bias.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who described the Knights of Columbus as “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men,” asked if he was aware when he joined that the organization opposed a woman’s right to choose. She also asked whether he agreed with a 2016 statement from Carl Anderson, the organization’s leader, that abortion is “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale.”

Buescher responded that, if confirmed, he would apply all legal precedent “on all issues without regard to any personal beliefs I may have.” The Knights of Columbus, he told Senator Hirono, “simply doesn’t have the authority to take personal positions on behalf of all of its approximately 2 million members.”

Mr. Anderson has been less diplomatic. “Any suggestion that the Order’s adherence to the beliefs of the Catholic Church makes a Brother Knight unfit for public office blatantly violates [First Amendment] constitutional guarantees,” he wrote in a Jan. 1 letter to members.

Reversing the trends

Organizations in the “middle ring,” like the Knights of Columbus, aren’t always good, Dunkelman points out. (The Ku Klux Klan is also a middle ring organization, for example.) But in response to Buescher’s confirmation process, he and others have cited Alexis de Tocqueville in arguing that their societal good far outweighs the bad.

Americans are “forever forming associations,” the French diplomat and historian noted in the 1830s, because in democracies like the US “all the citizens are independent and feeble… [and] therefore become powerless if they do not learn to voluntarily help one another.”

But as Turner, the religion writer, notes, misunderstanding and fear of associations, particularly religious ones, has been common in the past and will likely never disappear. And, she adds, “it’s important to not weaponize good-faith questioning.”

The questions asked of Buescher qualify as good faith questions, she says, and such questions are “a good place to start increasing understanding across religious divides.”

Other efforts are ongoing to shrink these divides. For two years the nonprofit Knight Foundation has funded a national civic engagement initiative called On The Table that brings a diverse group of residents together to discuss community issues. Nextdoor, a social network app that lets neighborhoods build private online communities, has been gaining popularity.

“My sense is people are in many ways eager to feel connected to people who live nearby. I think that’s reflected in all these books about loneliness that are coming out,” says Dunkelman. “Naturally, the desire to find people who fit our niche will expand to include people who have a different viewpoint, a different experience.”

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3. Will Trump’s State Department push religious freedom to center stage?

To many Americans, religious freedom is the bedrock of their country, and promoting it around the world should be a priority. But how do you turn that ideal into effective policies for people of all faiths?

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For two decades, an often-overshadowed movement in Washington has pushed to make religious freedom a key plank of US foreign policy. It has grown to encompass an unlikely set of bedfellows, from Sikhs to Scientologists, and is bedeviled by wildly different perceptions of its character and intent – both saintly to insidious. Now, in a move many see as driven by domestic politics, the Trump administration has trumpeted religious freedom promotion as a signature issue of its foreign policy. Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback, who now leads the Office of International Religious Freedom, has powerful political allies in fellow Christian conservatives Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We think it’s true in this administration that [religious freedom] is a God-given right,” says Mr. Brownback in an interview. “As a God-given right, then no government has a right to interfere with it.” But the push has sparked intense debate – especially from critics who question whether the administration will stand up for religious freedom for all or cater to the concerns of an evangelical Christian base.

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Will Trump’s State Department push religious freedom to center stage?

One of the most underestimated movements in Washington today started with a man and a vacuum sweeper.

It was 1999, and Robert Seiple had just been named America’s first ambassador at large for religious freedom, a position created by Congress the year before. An escort ushered him to his new office in the State Department, and left him at the door; the room was so small that no one else could fit in it.

“It was just me and a vacuum sweeper,” Mr. Seiple recalled recently at a conference commemorating the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). “I was grateful for that vacuum sweeper, because that office needed it.”

Indeed, the title – Office of International Religious Freedom – was more grandiose than the space. Today, however, it is run by Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback, a veteran politician who heads up a team of more than 30 people and has millions of dollars at his disposal. And he has powerful political allies in Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fellow Christian conservatives who speak passionately about exporting what they see as a hallmark American value – and defending it abroad.

“We think it’s true in this administration that [religious freedom] is a God-given right,” says Mr. Brownback in an interview. “As a God-given right, then no government has a right to interfere with it.”

In the two decades since Congress passed the IRFA, an often-overshadowed movement in Washington has pushed to make religious freedom a key plank of US foreign policy. Now, in a move many see as driven by domestic politics, the Trump administration is trumpeting religious freedom promotion as a signature issue.

“I think there’s been a sense among conservative religious groups … that recent administrations have just ticked the box of the IRFA rather than genuinely embracing the agenda and investing in it,” says Peter Mandaville, who served as senior adviser of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs from 2015-16. “I think it’s felt that with this administration, they’ve had an unprecedented opportunity to push this issue.”

In July, the State Department convened a first-ever ministerial on religious freedom, a three-day event attended by representatives from more than 80 countries, which culminated in the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action. Several months later, after an unusually high-profile intervention by President Trump, the administration celebrated the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned in Turkey. Brownback says the administration is raising China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians “at the highest levels,” and he and Mr. Pence have issued strong statements in support of Rohingya Muslims.

Such actions are boosting a growing enterprise that stretches across government, academia, and Washington’s think tank world. Religious freedom promotion encompasses an unlikely set of bedfellows, riven by internal divisions and bedeviled by wildly different perceptions of their character and intent, from saintly to insidious. In particular, critics question whether the Trump administration – supported by many white conservative Christians, for whom religious oppression abroad has long been a concern – will put equal effort into non-Christians causes.

As the movement gains momentum, it is stirring vigorous debate about just what it means to protect religious freedom, if and how the issue should be incorporated into US foreign policy, and whether the efforts are bearing fruit. 

Advocates “don’t have as much power in a realpolitik sense, but I think they have the power to frame the narrative that is also very powerful and gets underestimated,” says Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations” and a professor of politics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

She is critical of religious freedom promotion, describing it as an “imperial project” that presumes that the US has figured out how people of many faiths can coexist and is now teaching others about it. But, she adds, “to just demonize it as just a Christian power play is way too simplistic.”

Expanding movement put to the test

What started decades ago as a largely white, male, conservative Christian movement has grown to include Sikhs and Scientologists as well as more liberals, women, and people of color – including Suzan Johnson Cook, whom former President Barack Obama appointed as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in 2011. Her successor, Rabbi David Saperstein, was the first non-Christian to hold the office.

“There are a lot of people on the left who are interested in religious freedom, and they were happy to have had someone who would be a balance in there,” says the Rev. Johnson Cook. “I think I was a game changer.”

When Mr. Trump nominated Brownback, some were skeptical that he would work for religious freedom for all. A man of faith who was raised Methodist but converted to Catholicism in 2002, he had a conservative track record – including stands against abortion and gay marriage – that concerned Democrats and activists. He squeaked through his Senate confirmation 50-49.

Greg Mitchell, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, says that skepticism is softening. The group started with just a few dozen people meeting bimonthly. But with Brownback's support, Mr. Mitchell says, it now hosts weekly events with around 100 participants from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists.

“They see that he really is advocating for religious freedom for everyone,” says Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology, noting that Brownback visited Rohingya Muslims on his first trip.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar (Burma), a Buddhist-majority country, mostly to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. Brownback, upon his return, wrote that their accounts were worse than anything he’d ever encountered – including on a 2004 visit to Darfur. “The Burmese military ‎and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts,” he said.

This November, Pence took to task Myanmar head of government Aung San Suu Kyi, saying the persecution was “without excuse.” But the Trump administration, which has designated the Islamic State’s aggression toward Christians and other religious minorities as genocide, has declined to follow Congress’s lead in similarly designating Myanmar’s violence toward the Rohingya as genocide.

“The United States, the only superpower in the world right now, must come with some binding resolution,” said Sam Naeem, a Rohingya activist, speaking at the IRFA conference in November.

Whose freedom first?

Proponents of religious freedom evoke lofty notions of America as a shining city on a hill, a country founded at Plymouth Rock for the express purpose of establishing and protecting religious freedom – which they see as a prerequisite of democracy, prosperity, and peace.

“You get religious freedom right, and a lot of other freedoms bloom,” said Brownback at the fall IRFA conference, which was hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. “You get this one wrong, and a lot of other freedoms contract.”

For example, religiously unfree countries have experienced more than 13 times as many religious terrorist attacks as their religiously free counterparts, according to Nilay Saiya, author of “Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism.”

Critics, however, see religious freedom promotion as at best a misguided enterprise, providing a naively simplistic and potentially detrimental lens on global conflicts. Against a backdrop of a foreign policy that has delivered on conservative Christian priorities – from recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to ceasing global health funding for organizations that support abortion – and is led by a man who once called for a “shutdown” on Muslims entering the US, they question whether the Trump administration is committed to religious freedom as a universal value and whether it’s making any tangible impact.

Take one of the most high-profile cases so far: that of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr. Brunson was jailed in Turkey, which – amid a wide-ranging crackdown – issued a bizarre indictment accusing him of spying and links to a 2016 coup. Trump characterized Brunson’s imprisonment as religious persecution in the guise of trumped-up charges, and wielded tweets and tariffs to pressure the increasingly authoritarian government to release him – helping to drive a 40 percent drop in the Turkish lira.

Once Brunson was released in October, the US eased sanctions on Turkey. But another American citizen, Serkan Gölge, whose charges were deemed by the US to be “without credible evidence,” remains in jail. For some, the case of Mr. Gölge, a former NASA contractor with dual Turkish citizenship, illustrates Christian favoritism.

From bark to bite

Other critics say the State Department hasn’t been rigorous enough in going after religious-freedom offenders. Every year, State produces an annual report identifying “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs).

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created as a watchdog on State’s handling of religious freedom issues, recommended adding seven CPCs in 2018. However, it has little leverage; State heeded only one of those recommendations, adding Pakistan to a list of nine other repeat offenders: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

What’s more, the State Department has periodically waived sanctions against some CPCs, such as Saudi Arabia, citing “important national interest.”

There are also omissions by both State and USCIRF that critics find troubling. Israel has never been criticized for its treatment of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, wrote former commissioner and Lebanese Catholic Jim Zogby in a letter of dissent when he stepped down in 2017.

The “naming and shaming” approach has largely failed to produce meaningful reforms, Dr. Zogby argues in an interview, saying USCIRF’s yearly report isn’t even taken seriously within the US government, let alone abroad. He’s also deeply concerned about what he sees as a growing ideological bent to USCIRF, particularly among Republican appointees, with a few notable exceptions.

Furthermore, skeptics worry about prioritizing one freedom over others. After all, there is no ambassador at large for freedom of assembly or freedom of the press, points out Dr. Mandaville, who is now a professor at George Mason University. In an environment where national security and other geopolitical concerns often take precedence over human rights issues, highlighting one right can undermine the rest, he adds.

“The more you dilute the set of issues that are designed to fit together … you jeopardize our ability to advance the broader human rights agenda,” says Mandaville, who adds that as the pendulum of human rights has swung toward religious freedom, it’s swung away from promoting LGBT rights around the world, a signature issue of the Obama administration.

If there’s one thing the left and right can agree on within this movement, however, it’s that bipartisan buy-in is key to their credibility and effectiveness.

“If we lose that spirit of bipartisanship – if this thing becomes polarized the way so much of the rest of our politics is polarized,” says former USCIRF commissioner and Princeton professor Robert George, “then we’re going to be of no use.”

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4. Russia’s GMO debate looks a lot like America’s – with more geopolitics

Russians tend to be as concerned as their Western peers about how genetic modification might affect food products. But Russia's bans on GMOs have become a bone of East-West ideological contention.

Arthur
Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
Combines harvest barley in Russa’s Krasnoyarsk Region. Though the debate over GMOs rages on in Russia and elsewhere, some in the US see anti-GMO sentiment as part of a Russian propaganda effort to disadvantage the US and benefit Russia.

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When it comes to public attitudes toward genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there’s not much difference between Russians and Americans. Roughly a quarter of the Russian public trusts GMOs, about the same as the 30 percent of US citizens with a similar attitude. But the two countries have taken very different legislative paths toward GMOs. Russia has barred “cultivation of genetically engineered plants and breeding of genetically engineered animals on the territory of the Russian Federation,” mainly to protect Russia’s slowly reviving agricultural sector from becoming dependent on seeds produced legally in the US by big biotechnology firms like Monsanto. But the anti-GMO measures have also ended up framed as a rejection of “degenerate” Western practices and an upholding of Russian values, bringing a political dimension to what should be a purely scientific issue. “There have been a lot of pseudo-documentary films shown on Russian TV that give the idea GMOs are bad, that they cause disease or something like that,” says Alexander Panchin, a computational biologist. “Maybe part of the idea is that GMOs come from the West, and they are our enemies.”

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Russia’s GMO debate looks a lot like America’s – with more geopolitics

When faced with something new, Russian lawmakers have generally found it easier to ban it than to debate it, even if such prohibitions often prove dysfunctional in the long run.

A case in point: Russia’s legislation banning any production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which was nominally implemented in order to keep Russia's food supply “pure.”

The passage two years ago of the law, which prohibits “cultivation of genetically engineered plants and breeding of genetically engineered animals on the territory of the Russian Federation,” had a practical side, mainly to protect Russia’s slowly reviving agricultural sector from becoming dependent on seeds produced by big US biotechnology firms like Monsanto. And in follow-up legislation in late 2018, Russia’s parliament ordered detailed labeling for any products containing GMOs – as many foreign imports still do – in the name of consumer transparency.

The law has strong public support, even if opposition to it is rife in Russia’s scientific community. But, as in other cases where Russia has taken a vocal, single-minded official stand, the anti-GMO measures have been framed as a rejection of “degenerate” Western practices and an upholding of Russian values. Inevitably, they have become a bone of East-West ideological contention, with some in the US accusing Russia of anti-GMO “disinformation” meant to undermine confidence in American farming, which is the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered crops.

“There have been a lot of pseudo-documentary films shown on Russian TV that give the idea GMOs are bad, that they cause disease or something like that,” says Alexander Panchin, a computational biologist at the official Institute of Information Transmission Problems, which studies the way information is passed – or fails to pass – through systems. “Anti-GMO advocates do get a lot of media attention in Russia.... Maybe part of the idea is that GMOs come from the West, and they are our enemies.”

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters/File
A man looks out from a refrigerator while holding a one-person picket outside the State Duma in Moscow in March 2015. The man was protesting against the import of foreign food products containing GMOs.

Scientists’ trust, public doubt

Crossbreeding of plants and animals is as old as humanity, and most modern crops, barnyard animals, and household pets are the result of thousands of years of tinkering. But the science of gene-editing is something quite new, because it actually alters DNA, sometimes by introducing genetic material from a completely different species.

As a result, how to regulate GMOs is a complicated issue, with no simple answers. Many of the surrounding debates have yet to be settled. Several European countries have laws as stringent as Russia’s limiting use of GMOs.

“Polls show about 75 percent of Russians are suspicious of GMOs, so it’s easy for politicians to take this step,” says Pavel Volchkov, head of the genome engineering laboratory at the state-funded Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. “But not many people are actively against GMOs; it’s just that most don’t know anything about the subject. There has been a lot of negative media attention, which influences the public mood. But work continues in scientific institutes, and eventually the economic need for this will become overwhelming.”

Even in the United States, where GMO products are most prevalent, suspicions remain high. Two years ago, the US enacted a GMO-transparency law similar to Russia’s under public pressure.

Indeed, despite very different legislation and official attitudes toward GMOs, the public profiles of the US and Russia are not all that different. Polls show that while 90 percent of US scientists support GMOs, only 30 percent of Americans express “trust,” and there is a lot of vocal opposition to them.

Irina Ermakova, a biologist and vice president of the independent Academy of Geopolitical Problems, is one of Russia’s top GMO skeptics. She is a frequent guest on TV talk shows and has been an adviser to several deputies of the State Duma. She claims that it’s the introduction of alien genes, such as using genetic material from bacteria or fish to change the characteristics of grains or fruits, that is dangerous, unpredictable, and could be causing long-term health problems for unwitting human consumers.

“In Russia, our lawmakers do listen. They understand how important it is to have full control over our food supply,” she says. “I visited the US a few years ago, and I noticed how many shops are selling organic, non-GMO foods. It means that people want that, even if the big corporations prefer to make profits at any cost. In Europe they have the same worries, so it’s not just Russia where people feel this way.”

Strong anti-GMO voices like Ms. Ermakova’s do influence the public and produce an increasing chilling effect on development in various fields connected with agriculture and environmental management, says Konstantin Shestibratov, head of a forest-biotechnology group at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

“So much negative media coverage, which reflects the inconsistent positions of our officials, has a dire impact,” he says. “In my area, which is forest management, people are afraid that we are creating ‘Franken-trees’ that will take over the forests around Moscow. It stymies our work. In the US, and China too, they are moving ahead. We read their work, and we can copy it in laboratory conditions, but we can’t legalize it for use.”

GMOs as geopolitics?

Unlike the US, Russia does not have any major biotechnology corporations that stand to gain from a more liberal approach to genetically engineered products. Hence, there is no well-funded lobby to promote pro-GMO legislation or counter public prejudices. And so far Russia, which has become a major grain exporter in recent years, has actually profited from its claim to be marketing “pure” products, even though they are not “organic” in the sense of having been grown without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

“Russia has made a big point of this with our importers, and it works,” says Oleg Radin, a former department head of the Russian Grain Union. “So, why develop GMO products when we can profit by using a different strategy?”

Though the debate over GMOs clearly rages on in Russia and elsewhere, some in the US see anti-GMO sentiment as part of a Russian propaganda effort to disadvantage the US and benefit Russia. A study released by Iowa State University a year ago claimed that widely shared anti-GMO articles come disproportionately from Russia, and especially from the Kremlin-funded English-language TV station RT.

Pointing to an alleged rise in anti-GMO sentiment in the West, the study asserts that “Russian operatives leverage disinformation networks on social media to amplify existing anti-GMO messages.”

That is hotly disputed by RT, which claims it just covers stories from less-reported angles.

“The GMO debate has raged since long before RT even existed, and RT covers this issue as it does absolutely every other: through fact-based reporting and highlighting different, often overlooked, perspectives,” says Anna Belkina, RT’s director of communications. “Falsely ascribing sinister, political motivations where there are none does nothing but hurt the public by stifling an honest exchange of ideas.”

Despite the commercial ban on producing GMOs in Russia, scientists say that today’s politicians do not interfere with their studies into genetic engineering, and the work they are doing will eventually prove its worth.

“In Russia, we are a few years behind. There is a very conservative mood here, and that does create a drag on development,” says Mr. Volchkov. “But these days we seem to have mostly the same kinds of problems that they experience in other places, and our situation is not so different. Scientific progress is inevitable, and it will happen here.”

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5. ‘Plogging’ picks up steam – and trash – worldwide

It is perhaps a diversion for the inveterate multitasker. Enthusiasts of a Swedish-coined term, “plogging,” marry running with picking up trash along the way.

Arthur
Lauren Littell
Jocelyn Murzycki picks up trash during a run in Uxbridge, Mass., in November. What Ms. Murzycki says she's been doing for years – simultaneously running and collecting litter – has a Swedish-coined name, plogging, which entered at least one English dictionary last year.

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When Erik Ahlström moved to Stockholm, he was overwhelmed by litter in the streets and began gathering friends to help clean up while they were out running. Thus was born plogging, a mash-up of two Swedish words that mean “to pick up” and “to jog.” Running has long been a great equalizer – the sport accessible to anyone. Now, social media and running groups are mobilizing people to plog. And if there is something that Scandinavians do well, it’s community: In 2016, the  Danish “hygge” ideals of coziness and comfort spread as a cultural phenomenon to cope with the long and dark nights of winter. If hygge encourages people to hunker down with a blanket and good company, Mr. Ahlström hopes plogging will inspire people to take action outdoors. For Jocelyn Murzycki, it’s become a way of life. Even in winter, with the snow beginning to arrive, Ms. Murzycki says she isn’t hanging up her trash bag anytime soon. “I do it year-round and I’ll probably do it for the rest of my life. Because I truly enjoy it,” she says.

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‘Plogging’ picks up steam – and trash – worldwide

It’s 6:15 a.m. on a school day, and Jocelyn Murzycki has two kids she needs to get out the door in an hour. As the sun begins to lighten the sky above Uxbridge, Mass., Ms. Murzycki could try and snag a few more minutes of sleep. Instead, she’s heading out in the freezing cold on her daily plog – a run to hunt for trash.

First, the essentials: a trash grabber and a reusable shopping bag, one side for landfill and the other for recycling. Bundled against the chill, Murzycki jogs purposefully down Main Street, bag swishing at her side, pausing briefly to retrieve a plastic cup, still full of fresh ice. She usually needs to stop halfway through her 20-minute run to empty her bag. Within a few hours Murzycki says the street will look littered again. But she isn’t deterred – it just adds fuel to her plogging fire.  

The word “plogging” comes from plogga, a combination of two Swedish words that mean to pick up, “plocka upp,” and jog, “jogga.”

Murzycki, an administrative assistant for a financial planning company, has been doing this for a few years now – sweeping through her neighborhood and scooping up everything from to-go containers to plastic straws – even before the plogging trend had hit the United States.

“It really is super depressing if you go out every single day and just pick up trash,” she says. But she’s figured out how to make it fun by jogging with friends and upping the workout: finding a tiny glass bottle adds one pushup, finding a straw means doing one squat.   

Swedish plogging founder Erik Ahlström says he was inspired to give a name to the practice in 2016 after moving to Stockholm and feeling overwhelmed by the amount of litter. So he began gathering friends to clean up the neighborhood while out for runs. The name helped give the activity attention and focus.

Now Mr. Ahlström is traveling the world, preaching the benefits of plogging to receptive audiences in New Zealand, Vietnam, and Morocco, to name a few. In the US, Keep America Beautiful has helped launch an app that allows users to log the miles traveled and estimate calories burned while plogging. Social media and running groups are mobilizing people to get out and plog: The “plogging” hashtag alone has more than 40,000 Instagram posts. The word was added to the Collins English Dictionary just last year.   

Running has long been a great equalizer: It’s a sport accessible to anyone regardless of background, gender, age, or even ability. Behind the upper echelons of elite runners are millions who sign up for road races with no other goal than to simply finish. In the US, participation in road races grew 300 percent from 1990 to its peak in 2013.

“Running encourages good values around community health,” says Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “[It] provides wonderful opportunities for self achievement, goal setting,... and confidence building in a way that you control everything yourself.”

And if there is something that Scandinavians do well, it’s community. In 2016, the Danish “hygge” ideals of coziness and comfort spread worldwide as a cultural phenomenon to cope with the long and dark nights of winter.

But the spread of plogging has had a different effect. It gave a name to something that people were already doing at a time of heightened awareness of waste. In Sweden, for example, 2.7 million cigarette butts containing plastic are discarded every day. If hygge encourages people to hunker down with a blanket and good company, Ahlström hopes plogging will inspire people to take action in the outdoors.   

And it seems to be doing just that.

“Someone posted on our town [Facebook page] saying, ‘Oh what a great idea. We should do this.’ And I was like, I have been doing this!” Murzycki says.

The idea of slowing down a run to pick up someone else’s trash, however, isn’t picking up speed among all runners.

Marc Almanzan, a frequent amateur marathoner, is known for collecting litter on his runs in Boston – but only if there is a trash can in sight. And he definitely puts running before plogging. “If I were to ever plog it would need to be a very specific kind of event or time and place for it,” says Mr. Almanzan.      

But for people like Murzycki it’s become a way of life. At her daughter’s sporting events she introduces herself as a plogger to the other parents, selling it as a fun way to clean up the community.

Even now with the snow beginning to arrive Murzycki says she isn’t hanging up her trash bag anytime soon.

“I do it year-round and I’ll probably do it for the rest of my life. Because I truly enjoy it,” she says.

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The Monitor's View

Breaking Latin America’s migration driver

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Gang violence in Latin America continues to force thousands of people to flee each year. Curbing it remains central to the region’s stability. Now a new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been initiated into the search for solutions. Soon after taking office Jan. 1, Mr. Bolsonaro was confronted with mass violence by criminal organizations in the country’s northeast seeking to show who was really in charge. The federal response was led by a popular hero, former judge Sérgio Moro, the nation’s leading anti-corruption crusader. Now Bolsonaro’s minister for justice and security, he has sent 400 police troops into the region. But Mr. Moro knows it will take more than guns to break up Brazil’s gangs. Many of the techniques he proposes come from his fight against corruption: data collection, plea deals, and isolating offenders. The key is to break a gang’s code of loyalty. That often requires enticing gang members with other opportunities and a caring community outside of gang life. As Bolsonaro said last week, the government “must, by law, give guarantees that good will beat evil.”

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Breaking Latin America’s migration driver

Even if President Trump gets his border wall, it will not stop one big driver of migration. Gang violence in Latin America continues to force thousands of people to flee each year. Curbing such criminal groups remains central to the region’s stability. Many strategies have been tried, especially in Central America. Now a new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been quickly initiated into this ongoing search for solutions.

Soon after taking office Jan. 1, Mr. Bolsonaro was confronted with mass violence by criminal organizations in the northeast state of Ceará. Police stations, banks, and other buildings were burned. The attacks began after the local governor proposed new rules in prisons, such as cellphone blockers, that would have reduced the dominance of gangs. As has been the case in many Brazilian cities, gang leaders wanted to show who was really in charge.

The federal response was led by none other than a popular hero, former judge Sérgio Moro. He has served as the nation’s leading anti-corruption crusader, putting dozens of politicians behind bars, including a popular ex-president. Now, as Bolsonaro’s minister for justice and security, he sent 400 police troops into Ceará to help control the violence.

But Mr. Moro knows it will take more than guns matching guns to break up Brazil’s gangs, especially the most powerful one, The First Capital Command. He plans to present reform legislation that he hopes will create a “virtuous circle” of crime reduction, mainly through preventative measures.

Many of the techniques he proposes come from his fight against high-level corruption, such as data collection, plea deals, and isolating offenders. The key is break a gang’s code of loyalty, which often requires enticing young gang members with other opportunities and a caring community outside of gang life. Crime experts call this “focused deterrence.”

Just as Moro has changed Brazil’s corrupt political culture, he wants to change the culture that leads young men to join gangs. Or, as Bolsonaro said after an armed gang killed a police officer in Rio de Janeiro last week, the government “must, by law, give guarantees that good will beat evil.”

Gangs tend to thrive where the state is largely absent in providing basic services. That includes prisons where gangs are often in charge and can gain recruits. Brazil has one of the world’s largest prison populations and one of the  highest murder rates. If the new government can come up with solutions against organized crime based on integrity and humility, it might help other countries in Latin America.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Rooting out bias and suspicion

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An article in today’s Monitor Daily points to the idea that it’s become all too common for people to assume they know what someone thinks based on what organizations they belong to. Here’s an article that explores how we can let love and wisdom, rather than stereotypes and assumptions, guide our interactions with others.

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Rooting out bias and suspicion

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Sometimes political discussions center on perceived differences between races and religions, or between people of different social, political, or economic status, in ways that can bring a rising tide of suspicion toward each other. For instance, I recall a time when I asked a stranger for directions and information, and I noticed that we initially exchanged suspicious glances at each other before I began speaking. I was startled by that all-too-common temptation to judge others by differences such as race, age, and gender.

An impulse to be suspicious of others in this way is contrary to what my study of Christian Science has taught me about our real, spiritual nature as children of God. In fact, prior to this situation I had been putting a great deal more effort into appreciating the natural bond of brotherhood and sisterhood we all share. For me, that meant watching how I thought and acted toward others, and not to make snap judgments that may be unfair.

Recognizing that this moment was an important opportunity to live what I had been praying to understand better, I silently began to cherish the spiritual fact that we all have the same Father, God. As the Bible explains, there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:6). I felt inspired by that divine truth.

Getting beyond bias and suspicion means appreciating others as God created and sees them. It’s a lesson that is brought out in the Bible’s book of Samuel. Searching for the person the Lord would anoint as king, Samuel came to understand that “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7). I saw that I had to look both on, and from, the heart in order to see the true identity we have from God.

The best example of how to do this was Christ Jesus. Jesus looked at others with spiritual love, derived from God, divine Love itself, and healed them of sickness; he understood man as created by God to be spiritual, good, and pure, and reformed those engaged in sinful behavior. His thoughts and actions were so united to God that he could prove the power of divinely impelled love over hate and fear. His example could not be a more powerful help to us today.

My initial moment of suspicion quickly dissolved. My conversation with the man was wonderfully full of goodwill and even humor. If I had thought of that person solely in terms of physical attributes, such as race, age, and gender, it would have clouded my view; I would have missed out on seeing his kindness, intelligence, and spontaneous joy – divinely rooted qualities – in the way he uniquely expressed them.

That experience continues to remind me not to be taken in, even for an instant, by the temptation to define and distrust one another based on appearances, and also reminds me not to be swayed by public opinion.

What Jesus showed us is the spirit of Christ – the healing presence and power of God that is eternally with us. He taught the truth of our identity as children of God that, when cherished and understood, naturally moves us to act with love toward each other; it counteracts and dissolves bias and unmerited suspicion; it unifies us. The discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, explains: “With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren; and with one Mind and that God, or good, the brotherhood of man would consist of Love and Truth, and have unity of Principle and spiritual power which constitute divine Science” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” pp. 469-470).

The spiritual truth that we are all of one God and Father provides a solid basis for letting go of biases and suspicion. As Jesus proved in healing the sick and sinning, it is this spiritual view of each other that engenders love and wisdom, and that can lift even the most fearful and hardened hearts.

Previously published in the Christian Science Perspective column, Dec. 9, 2016.

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Viewfinder

Holding on to power

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waves to supporters during a rally at the Green Square in Khartoum, Sudan, Jan. 9. In place since an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, he has been embattled of late, with deadly antigovernment protests occurring countrywide. Staggering inflation and a steep bread-price hike in December have helped fuel protests against his regime.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 10th, 2019 )

Thank you for accompanying our exploration of the world today. Please come back tomorrow, when we will look at US voters’ growing desire for more impartial ways of drawing districts to bring an end to gerrymandering.

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January 09, 2019
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