International religious-freedom efforts split on policies and structures

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

Separation of religious bodies from state policy can help allow the state to ensure that such dissent is possible. "The Turkish government has the right and authority to limit the headscarf if it interferes and destroys the rights and freedoms of others," Gaer said, "which the European Court has ruled it does. The French and the Uzbeks have a right to be concerned about public order. And the U.S. has a right to be concerned about abuse of women in the name of religion, such as abuse of minor children in polygamous sects."

But the line is a fine one, and hotly contested. The international religious freedom commission this past week shocked diplomatic circles by recommending Turkey for the list of Countries of Particular Concern. The report pointed to "systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country's non-Muslim religious minorities."

"Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that's not where Turkey belongs," retorted Ambassador Namik Tan, according to the Washington Post. "The categorization of Turkey as a CPC list country not only damages the credibility and relevance of the (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom), but also raises serious questions about the political motivation that drives this exercise."

The commission's CPC designation sparked friction even among commissioners who felt Turkey had made significant progress and that isolating the regime at this moment was unfair. After the vote one commissioner tried to change his position, which would have reversed the outcome. But the commission would not allow the change, according to sources and published accounts. The result was an uncharacteristic public flap that overshadowed the recommendation itself.

Feet to the fire

For all of the controversy surrounding the commission's confrontations, mild critics like John Hanford acknowledge its valuable role. When it faced extinction last fall, he lobbied for its extension and urged that it remain at nine members, not be cut to five as had been proposed.

Lurking behind discussions of the status of the commission is the alternative, which is to integrate religious freedom entirely into the State Department. In his book, Thomas Farr lamented the isolation of religious freedom, which he says is deepened "by those who do not trust the department and are unwilling to invest the political capital necessary to help integrate IRF into the foreign policy mainstream."

But some are leery of fully integrating international religious freedom into the State Department. Those who support a voice outside the department argue that if the commission disappeared, careerist indifference or political agendas within the bureaucracy would lower the profile of religious freedom.

Some see these fears borne out in the Obama administration, which waited more than a year to appoint its first religious freedom ambassador-at-large, and then appointed Suzan Johnson Cook, a clergywoman with strong domestic experience but no diplomatic or non-governmental organization experience in international religious freedom issues or other human rights subfields.

Many concerned about international religious freedom were reluctant to directly criticize Johnson Cook's appointment, but there is a clear sense that stronger credentials were expected.

"You can expect me to say that the ambassador should come from the career foreign service," said Ambassador Randolph Bell, a prominent retired foreign service officer who worked extensively on post-Holocaust issues and now heads the First Freedom Center. "Some great people come from outside the professional ranks," he said, but then "you would want someone with hard-core NGO experience abroad."

A valid choice, Bell said, "would know how to work the bureaucracy and have to bone up on religious freedom issues, or the other way around." Because Johnson Cook has neither key variable, many argued that her appointment indicated the administration had downgraded the importance of international religious freedom.

Her appointment first was derailed via a private hold from one senator. She was re-appointed and confirmed a year later. In that long interval, critics note, an Obama administration with no reluctance about recess appointments failed to push one through for her. Others add that her formal status within the State Department was downgraded, and the staff which had previously been under the international religious freedom ambassador's control were shifted away.

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