Religious liberty may not be a recognized Olympic event but in the game of life it is neither a trivial pursuit.
The recent release of the U.S. Department of State annual report on international religious freedom underscores the importance this issue. Listen to the July 30, 2012 speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the report’s release and you will discover that the principle of religious liberty is not only enshrined in the U.S. Constitution but also in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Watch the video on C-SPAN or on Carnegie Endowment’s Web site and note that unlike some Olympic events there are no empty seats in the room – demonstration the passion for the cause of religious liberty.
Participants included representatives of different faiths that beautify the mosaic of American society. They were there to listen, to learn and ask questions from the top diplomat in the U.S. government and not to observe the proverbial smoke and mirrors.
“More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression,” Clinton said.
“How will Islamist parties govern?” she asked. It was an impression one could take from the questions arising after the speech. The anxiety appears to be from the political earthquake known as the Arab Spring. In answering the questions, she cautioned the world to be patient and not prejudge. While a number of countries were mentioned none were targeted for vilification.
Annual reports may not convey the whole story because the condensed downloadable file masks the enormous effort expended by the staff and the non-governmental organizations behind the scenes.
From firsthand experience going back to the first such report, I know the long hours worked by the staff of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook. I also know the challenges in compiling the input that goes into the report; to do justice one must separate facts constituting religious persecution from false impressions and personal conflicts. The reports will perhaps never show the 1am email responses from the State Department employees who must condense the raw data into a standardized format.
Having met and worked with all the ambassadors-at-large for international religious freedom since the inception of this office, one comes with a keen appreciation of the sincerity and the dedication to the mission that Clinton pointed out. An example of the “walking the talk,” is the empathy from the questions of a senior state department representative who stopped by the table for my community at the Rayburn House Office Building reception organized by the U.S. House of Representatives International Religious Freedom Caucus.
Having participated in a meeting with the religion and foreign policy working group on development assistance issues, I heard personal testimony about how the lives of Kosovo Muslims were better off with such assistance. From this meeting at the Catholic Relief Services world headquarters in Baltimore, I came back with an appreciation of the opportunities that exist by U.S. citizens of different faiths joining hands and putting their words into action to change the lives of fellow human beings in need.
Clinton reminded the audience, the important principle remained that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”As such, there is no place for governmental organizations to dictate citizens on what faith to choose or interfere if individual citizens decide to change their faith - or for that matter, what to wear or not to wear.
Certainly, no government should have a free hand in denying citizenship rights to targeted minorities as is the case of the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Likewise, no government should force its citizens to denounce the founder of a peaceful religious community as in the case of Ahmadis in Pakistan in order to obtain basic documents such as a passport.
In her remarks, Clinton shared a conversation with Egyptians Christians who espoused their love to their country and wanted to work for its prosperity. Like the Egyptian Christians, the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Bahai’s in Iran and Ahmadis in Pakistan have the same aspirations to make the societies they live in a better place. With the forceful support for the cause of religious liberty, Clinton and her dedicated team have set a goal that might be more than its weight in gold.
C. Naseer Ahmad is a co-author of “A Diamond in Africa: The Illustrious Life of an African Ahmadi.”