Clinton discourages anti-defamation laws to protect religion

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized on Monday an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. . . . I strongly disagree," Clinton said. "The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions."

While unnamed in Clinton's speech, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group of 56 Islamic nations, has been pushing hard for the U.N. Human Rights Council to adopt resolutions that broadly bar the defamation of religion. The effort has raised concerns that such resolutions could be used to justify crackdowns on free speech in Muslim countries.

Clinton made her comments while unveiling the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom.

Many advocates of religious freedom applauded Clinton's remarks on blasphemy laws, but some said the report did not go far enough in censuring or proposing action against countries with a track record of abuses or persecution on religious grounds.

"To date, President Obama has raised religious freedom in his speeches abroad without those sentiments being translated into concrete policy actions, and our hope is that this report will be the administration's call to action," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency.

The 1998 legislation that established the annual report on religious freedom created Leo's group -- a permanent, nine-member commission to advise the president and government -- as well as an ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Knox Thames, acting executive director of the group, singled out the report's description of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Vietnam. "I think it could be stronger. In their Vietnam chapter, for instance, it completely ignores the issue of prisoners. It's believed several individuals are in jail because of their religiously motivated politics," he said. "We just think that's a mistake."

Tom Farr, who was the first director of the State Department's office of international religious freedom and now teaches at Georgetown University, called the report imbalanced. "It spends too much time identifying the problem and not enough on what the U.S. is doing and should be doing to address the problem," he said.

Farr also noted that the report was presented without an ambassador at large in charge of international religious freedom, because Obama has not nominated a candidate.

"I think it's a bad sign," he said. "There's no excuse for not having anyone in that spot by now."

Monday's report also was notable for highlighting interfaith efforts, something Obama has pushed in his international speeches. Clinton, in her remarks, made deliberate mention of two such efforts, including contributions by Jordan to an interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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