New report on international religious freedom: White House flagging

By Michelle Boorstein Should the United States be doing more to promote religious freedom overseas? It can be a sticky, … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

Should the United States be doing more to promote religious freedom overseas?

It can be a sticky, complex subject, untangling religious persecution from politics, and prioritizing which parts of the world on which to focus. Not to mention that some Americans feel uncomfortable seeing their government take positions on religious issues in other countries.

The U.S. government commission charged with promoting religious freedom overseas (yes, there is one) released its annual report today, calling on the Obama Administration to do more, particularly in places on the commission’s worst-offenders list, which includes Nigeria, China and Vietnam.

In comments to be given later today at the National Press Club, Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, will make an argument we have reported on before: That administration officials have deliberately weakened their language on this subject, speaking rarely about “religious freedom” and instead promoting the more limited “freedom of worship.”

This “could be taken by some in the world community as a signal that freedom of religion is not a priority for the Administration,” Leo’s comments read. “The oppressed of this world look to the Administration, indeed, all of us, with hope and forbearance, to do more.”

The commission today unveils its list of 25 countries with the most severe religious persecution issues. It’s the same list as last year, but commissioners are being more vocal and specific in their criticism of the administration. The report focuses this year not only on government-sponsored persecution but on governments failing to punish religiously-motivated violence when it comes from private corners.

The administration has been criticized not only by religious freedom advocates but human rights advocates more broadly, who are concerned the subject plays second fiddle to priorities like global trade. They have noted that the White House has yet to fill its highest-priority religious freedom position – the ambassador-at-large at the State Department. For months there have been rumors that the job is going to either Democratic faith activist Leah Daughtry or author and public speaker Suzan Johnson Cook. I’ve been hearing these two women’s names for months, but new rumors focus again on Cook.

Meanwhile, the commission has its own credibility issues, as it’s currently facing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint that it pulled back a job offer to a Muslim policy analyst once commissioners found out more about her religion and religious work. Lawmakers have also been making efforts to review the commission’s effectiveness as the body is by law slated to otherwise sunset next year.

UPDATE: I mentioned the growing push among international religious freedom advocates for the Obama Administration to name an ambassador-at-large to the State Department. I wanted to pass along a letter from two senior senators who speak out often on this issue, urging Obama to pick someone with “robust foreign policy experience as well as a background in promoting global religious freedom” – a description that doesn’t really fit Cook or Daughtry. The April 15 letter from Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republican George Voinovich also calls for the White House to give the ambassador a higher profile within the State Department.


Read Leo’s On Faith commentary on the subject of religious freedom:

And read another commentary on the subject by Charles C. Haynes of the Religious Freedom Education Project.

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