International religious-freedom efforts split on policies and structures

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 6:54 p.m. MDT

U.S. President George W. Bush walks past Vietnamese choir members after services at Cua Bac Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov. 19, 2006. His visit coincided with the State Department removing Vietnam from a list of religious freedom abusers, an action that still divides the community of International Religious Freedom advocates.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

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Editor's note: This is the second of two articles on escalating threats to religious freedom and U.S. efforts to control those threats. Yesterday we outlined current problems and the competing values at home and abroad that make effective action difficult. Today, we survey U.S. policy responses since 1998, with emphasis on contentious governmental structure and strategic divisions among religious religious liberty advocates.

Part one: Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate

As Michael Cromartie concluded a February 2006 meeting with a high-ranking government official in Bangladesh, the two walked to the elevator. The official was in a friendly mood and offered to buy dinner the next time he was in Washington. "But meanwhile," he added as Cromartie stepped into the elevator, "get us off that damn list!"

The "list" appeared in the annual report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, of which Cromartie was chairman at the time. The Commission comprises one portion of a U.S. policy response to religious persecution abroad that became law in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The law also created an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department. Together, these two bodies aim to catalog and expose abuses, help nations improve their religious freedom climate, and keep American foreign policy focused on the issue.

Severe cases go on a list of Countries of Particular Concern, a finding that triggers flexible sanctions. For 14 years, the commission has recommended countries for the list and has placed less severe cases on a watch list. Only the State Department can actually designate a nation as a Country of Particular Concern, and it has often resisted calls to add new countries.

In December, the controversial International Religious Freedom Commission was nearly allowed to expire when a last-minute congressional compromise saved it. At the same time, the Obama administration has significantly downgraded the role of the religious freedom ambassador in the State Department, critics say, leaving the agenda adrift there. The tale of these two entities demonstrates how international religious freedom became a core human right in U.S. foreign policy, though one whose place remains insecure and contentious.

Distrust leads to duality

The International Religious Freedom Act's agenda developed in an atmosphere of distrust. Some diplomats and human rights activists worried that this new agenda aimed to mainly serve Christians and would shove other more traditional human rights matters aside. Nonetheless, the compromise bill was ultimately endorsed by the Clinton administration, and it passed 98-0 in the Senate and by unanimous voice vote in the House.

Fearing indifference or hostility in the State Department, some religious freedom advocates wanted the commission to be a watchdog, exposing abuses abroad and keeping them from being swept under the rug at home. Its job was to "hold the State Department's feet to the fire," as one advocate put it. Others felt the commission should be a think tank, producing more classified briefings and fewer press releases. In the end, the watchdog vision carried the day.

Distrust is the norm in American politics, reaching back to James Madison. Today's legislators fear tomorrow's executive will undermine their project. Independent commissions have been used to calm such fears since the time of Woodrow Wilson. But since 1998, the chasm between the commission's watchdog and think tank roles has caused friction within the international religious freedom community.

Defusing opposition

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