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International religious-freedom efforts split on policies and structures

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

Meanwhile, some doubting diplomats and human rights advocates were won over. Contrary to their fears of a Christian defense agency, the work of both the Ambassador and the Commission have strictly focused on individual conscience as expressed in international norms and agreements. Much emphasis has been placed on non-Christian faiths such as the Baha'i in Iran and the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan and Indonesia. The commission has defended Muslim practices in Turkey and Uzbekistan, and it has even supported "cults" in France.

In her 2006 memoir, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an early critic of the International Religious Freedom Act agenda, said the law had been helpful because it "made identifying and condemning all forms of religious persecution an integral part of U.S. foreign policy and has caused American diplomats to become more comfortable and practiced at raising the issue."

But she added that there is "a right way and a wrong way to go about it" and argued that "lasting change is more likely to come through persuasion than through making blunt demands."

Reforming Vietnam

Friends and allies in the international religious freedom community often disagree. Those who work closely with problem nations are more apt to defend incremental progress overseas, while hardliners may see such indulgence as a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The case of Vietnam illustrates these conflicts.

As Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, John Hanford traveled to Vietnam four times and met repeatedly with Vietnamese officials in Washington. The changes, he felt, were dramatic. "Forced renunciations of faith were ended, all religious prisoners on our list were released, a new law granted greater freedoms and almost entirely eliminated attacks on religious groups, places of worship which had been closed were reopened, and previously underground religious groups with hundreds of thousands of believers were granted the status to meet openly."

Hanford acknowledges slippage in Vietnam since its status as a Country of Particular Concern was lifted in 2006, shortly before President George W. Bush made a state visit to Hanoi. But Hanford insists there are limits to U.S. capacity to "name and shame." If you want real progress, he said, "you have to invest enormous effort in investigating, strategizing, engaging, persuading. You cannot just designate a country like Vietnam a CPC and then sit back and expect a wonderful transformation."

The Commission tends to hold that suppressing press, assembly and speech undermines concessions on religious freedom, if those who are religiously motivated are still harassed or imprisoned. Felice Gaer, a human rights expert at the American Jewish Committee, notes in a 2008 article that many religious leaders in Vietnam fear no lasting change will occur without "legal reforms addressing freedoms of expression, assembly, and association are necessary to protect freedom of thought, conscience, and religion from the arbitrary power of the state."

Defending secular claims

Those who define religious persecution must also decide when a secular state can properly impinge on religious practice. For example, the commission's report called out France for cracking down on cults. This critique of France provoked an indignant response from Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law and a prominent voice on religion and the law.

Hamilton notes conversations with French citizens who were "outraged" at being judged. "France has been struggling," she argued, with "how to regulate those religious groups that prey on children and the psychologically enfeebled through brainwashing," adding that U.S. states have likewise struggled with balancing the claims of parents who withhold medical care from their children for religious reasons.

Turkey faces even tougher challenges than France in balancing religious and secular claims. Since its 1922 founding, the modern Turkish state has struggled to maintain its secular status against Islamic pressure, and its interactions with minority Christian and majority Muslims have always been tense. The fierce maintenance of secularity, many believe, has been the linchpin of its stability.

Defending religious freedom is a complex matter, as the claims of a group can sometimes conflict with the autonomy of the individual. Under international agreements, noted Gaer, the individual retains the right to freedom of thought and conscience. "Those freedoms allow the individual to dissent when the community attempts to restrict the individual's rights and freedoms," Gaer said.

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