Obama administration sidelines religious freedom policy

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By Thomas F. Farr
Friday, June 25, 2010

Last week President Obama nominated an ambassador at large for international religious freedom, a position created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The nominee, Suzan Johnson Cook, is a distinguished pastor who will, if confirmed by the Senate, be strongly supported by advocates of religious freedom.

She will need their support.

It appears that the policy Johnson Cook has been nominated to lead is being sidelined even before she takes the job. The Obama administration seems to have decided that other policy initiatives -- outreach to Muslim governments, obtaining China's cooperation, advancing gay rights -- would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religious freedom. In fact, such a decision would harm the victims of religious persecution, hamstring key Obama initiatives and undermine U.S. national interests.

The IRF Act was passed unanimously because millions are denied religious liberty. An exhaustive Pew Forum study revealed in December that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted. A few recent examples:

A senior Saudi cleric issued a fatwa mandating the death of anyone arguing that men and women could work together professionally. Such edicts emerge from Wahhabism, a malevolent political theology that nurtured Osama bin Laden and continues to be exported worldwide.

In Afghanistan, a journalist was sentenced to death for blasphemy because he made Islamic arguments for women's rights. Even after the military defeat of the Taliban, such Taliban-like ideas and practices will continue to destabilize Afghan democracy.

In 2009 Chinese security forces beat to death a Tibetan Buddhist monk for passing out leaflets supporting the Dalai Lama. The torture and "disappearance" of Buddhist monks and nuns, and of disfavored Muslims and Christians, are routine in China.

These stories and thousands like them represent more than humanitarian tragedies. They signal a national security threat -- and a diplomatic opportunity -- for the United States. The absence of religious freedom is highly correlated with unstable democracy, low economic growth, low female literacy rates and religion-based terrorism. Religious liberty could help solve these problems, undergird Obama's Muslim strategy and advance women's rights. In Afghanistan, for example, a sound IRF policy could help rid that nation of the toxic ideas and practices -- such as criminal prosecutions for blasphemy and apostasy -- that will continue to undermine Afghan democracy and nourish religious extremism, even after the hoped-for military defeat of the Taliban.

This is why many bipartisan groups, such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, have urged the administration to view IRF policy as central to American interests.

But the administration is not listening.

Expert envoys have long been at work on favored subjects, including HIV/AIDS, Guantanamo, disabilities and outreach to Muslim communities. A task force on gay rights has been in place for months.


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