By Leonard Leo
chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
It’s early December 2009 and a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) delegation arrives in Sudan to assess the conditions prior to the scheduled April countrywide elections. The USCIRF delegation is in Khartoum when peaceful petitioners are detained for requesting passage of security and criminal procedures reforms required under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and meet with Yasir Arman, a National Assembly member and later presidential candidate who was detained and beaten.
Fast-forward to the last full week in January 2010. USCIRF Commissioners and staff are in Cairo shortly after six Coptic Christians and one Muslim are gunned down leaving Coptic Christmas Eve services in the village of Naga Hammadi. Political and religious tension is palpable. The USCIRF delegation is in Cairo the day Egypt’s President publicly acknowledges the country’s sectarian problems and the press calls for an investigation of the root causes of the violence.
In March 2010 a USCIRF delegation is in Nigeria for the third time in a year, just days after about 500 people have been killed in sectarian clashes in and around the city of Jos. This outbreak is only the most recent in a decade of violence that has claimed over 13,000 Muslim and Christian lives without a single prosecution taking place. The delegation meets with the National Security Adviser, Ministry of Justice, Nigerian Federal Police, and other officials about the culture of impunity in the country.
The fact finding missions above embody the essence of USCIRF’s mandate: to identify “hot spots” where freedom of religion is obstructed and related human rights are trampled, and formulate U.S. policy solutions at the critical convergence of foreign policy, national security, and international human rights standards.
Under traditional policy formulations that zone of convergence has received little attention. But there are some hopeful signs of change. Both the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships recently issued reports that focus on the role of religion in global affairs, the ways religion factors into U.S. foreign policy objectives, and the need to engage communities of all faiths to help resolve many of the most vexing global issues.
Such attention comes none too soon. Religion historically has generated passion and controversy, often serving as a proxy for political, economic, and social conflicts. Religious freedom, a fundamental human right, is frequently the first right repressive governments deny before eliminating the freedoms of assembly, association and the press, and restricting the rights of women, minorities and majority dissidents. USCIRF’s experiences in Sudan, Nigeria and Egypt, among nearly 30 other countries that top the Commission’s agenda, reinforce the fact that the absence of religious freedom fosters extremism, instability, other serious human rights violations, and religiously-based violence.
USCIRF has focused since its inception on Sudan because Khartoum’s policies of Islamization and Arabization were a major factor in the Sudanese North-South civil war (1983-2005). During that period, Northern leaders, including Sudan’s current President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, exploited religion to mobilize northern Muslims against non-Muslim Southerners by appealing to Islam and calling for jihad. USCIRF remains concerned about continuing severe human rights violations committed by the Sudanese government against both non-Muslims and Muslims who depart from the government’s interpretation of Islam; the two million Southerners who reside in the North as internally displaced persons (IDPS); and the dramatic need for international support to develop Southern Sudan. Along with assessing conditions prior to the April elections, the USCIRF delegation gathered information for recommendations to the Obama Administration and Congress on how best to ensure successful implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), including the January 2011 referendum on self-determination for Southern Sudan. The CPA is a landmark agreement that ended the civil war, and its enforcement is key to preventing another civil war. In fact, the greatest danger to religious freedom and other human rights in Sudan would be the collapse of the fragile peace brought about by the CPA. As the USCIRF delegation carried out its work, visiting displaced South Sudanese Christians living in camps outside Khartoum, the ominous sights of barricaded streets, armed military and security personnel around the National Assembly were a sobering reminder of the challenges to peace that lay ahead for Sudan.
In Egypt, serious problems of discrimination and intolerance against non-Muslim religious minorities and disfavored members of the Muslim majority remain widespread. The Egyptian government’s inadequate prosecution of those responsible and the politically expedient and occasional use of an ineffective reconciliation process, an improper substitute for conviction and punishment, have created a climate of impunity. Although the government has arrested three Muslim men and put them on trial for the Coptic Christmas Eve attack on six Coptic Orthodox Christians and one Muslim, the Coptic community fears reprisals and is skeptical that the government will either follow through with the trial of the three men in question or use its authority to create an environment in which individuals safely exercise their internationally guaranteed rights of religious freedom. However, President Mubarak publicly condemned the violence and acknowledged its sectarian character, and the Egyptian press for the first time called for a national conversation and an investigation on the root causes of this violence. Juxtaposed against these signs are the USCIRF delegation’s visits to the Muslim Koranist, Jehovah Witnesses, and Baha’i communities, each victimized by state-sponsored discrimination and repression. The government also has responded inadequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.
The government of Nigeria continues to respond inadequately and ineffectively to recurrent communal and sectarian violence. Religion is beyond doubt a driving force in the violence, and a precipitating factor or proxy for political or social issues. Years of inaction by Nigeria’s federal, state and local governments has created a formidable climate of impunity that has resulted in thousands of deaths. The USCIRF delegation learned in meetings at the Justice Ministry that the interim government is for the first time taking action by arresting some 165 people, prosecuting 41, and filing cases in both Jos, site of the worst violence, and the capital, Abuja. USCIRF cautiously takes note of these efforts as well as the willingness of the Nigerian Federal Police to receive U.S. technical assistance and law enforcement training to detect, prevent and respond to sectarian tensions and violence. Yet, the Christian and Muslim groups with whom USCIRF met, who believe deeply in peace and reconciliation, express despair, resentment and impatience about the prevailing climate of impunity. Their concerns are validated by a recently released survey conducted this year by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in which more than 58 percent of Nigerians surveyed worry about future conflict along religious lines.
USCIRF’s fact-finding missions to countries such as Sudan, Egypt, and Nigeria underscore that religious freedom is vital to security, prevention of violent religious extremism, establishment of civil society and the rule of law, and socio-economic progress, and that preserving religious freedom quite often bolsters stability, peace and prosperity. Furthermore, in today’s global environment, we ignore at our peril the centrality of faith to billions of people around the world as well as the propagation of instability, extremism, national and transnational violence and gross human rights violations that take place when governments curtail or eradicate the fundamental right of religious freedom.
Congress created USCIRF in 1998 as an independent and bipartisan commission to make freedom of religion abroad a key aspect of our nation’s public diplomacy, national security and economic development objectives. USCIRF was created to monitor religious freedom in the international community based on international standards, and to advise the President, Secretary of State and Congress on the facts and circumstances of religious freedom globally, and provide specific policy recommendations for strengthening freedom of religion for all faiths. USCIRF’s advocacy on freedom of religion has led us to shine the light on many other countries, including Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, and Vietnam. USCIRF remains committed to engaging the political branches of the U.S. Government, as well as civil society, to identify and address repressive conditions in the world that can, and must, capture our hearts and minds.
USCIRF is releasing is Annual Report on April 29 that documents serious abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief around the world. Please go to www.uscirf.gov for a copy of this report.
Leonard Leo is chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom