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Obama administration sidelines religious freedom policy

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Yet it took 18 months to nominate an ambassador for international religious freedom. And despite bipartisan urging to employ religious freedom as a means to advance our national security, the recent National Security Strategy ignores IRF policy. The ambassador will not report directly to the secretary of state as do other ambassadors at large (all of whom are experts in their fields). The staffers who reported to predecessors will not report to Johnson Cook should she be confirmed. The position will be emasculated, in direct contravention of the legislation that created it.

Why downgrade religious freedom? Administration officials apparently think that "engaging" Muslims abroad precludes a vigorous policy on international religious freedom. But while many Muslim governments fear religious liberty as a threat to their authority, polls show religious freedom is popular among Muslims. Among other things, Muslims need religious liberty to undermine Islamist extremism and to advance women's rights -- to argue, for example, that the Koran does not require repression of women or non-Muslims, or death for apostasy. The administration is missing a huge opportunity to employ IRF policy as a means of countering religious terrorism. And supporting Muslims' right to religious freedom could reenergize Obama's engagement strategy in Islamic lands.

Meanwhile, China has insisted it will handle its "religion problem" its way. We seem to have acquiesced, settling for periodic "dialogues" in which little is accomplished. But our averted gaze will only increase human suffering while Beijing decides whether to accommodate its exploding religious population or to crush it.

As for a gay rights initiative, it would indeed be complicated by a policy empowering religious actors to argue in favor of traditional sexual morality -- but religious actors also have a right to free speech.

Against the odds, the smart and courageous IRF staff in Foggy Bottom has made inroads and is leading several promising interagency efforts on religion. The ambassador to the Organization of Islamic States advocates for religious freedom. New training on religion for diplomats is under consideration. But these efforts are ad hoc and under-resourced. Alone, they cannot counter a decision to sideline religious liberty in U.S. foreign policy. Whatever one's views on engaging Islam, cooperating with China or advancing gay rights, surely we can all agree that religious freedom deserves our vigorous and sustained defense. Without it, no one is safe. And that includes us.

Thomas Farr is a visiting professor at Georgetown and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He was the first director of the State Department's office of international religious freedom, under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, from 1999 to 2003. He wrote "World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security."


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