In our opinion: U.S. should continue role as international advocate for religious freedom

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2 2012 12:04 a.m. MDT

In this July 24, 2012 file photo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the State Department Washington. Clinton said Monday the jury was out on whether Egypt's Islamist political parties will equally represent non-Muslims, and said the Obama administration's future relationship with President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would depend on how they respect the rights of Coptic Christians, women and other minorities. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Carolyn Kaster, File, AP

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Nearly half of the world's governments participate in abuses of religious freedom, either directly or by standing by, according to U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, who spoke this week at the release of the State Department's annual report documenting abuses of religious freedom around the world.

It's a startling figure, made even more vivid by the uncharacteristically poetic language of the report's introduction:

"To think, believe, or doubt. To speak or pray; to gather or stand apart. Such are the movements of the mind and heart, infinitives that take us beyond the finite. Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, are inherent."

Unsurprisingly, one of the central concerns identified in this year's report is the fate of religious minorities in political and demographic transitions, such as those underway in the Arab world.

Religious freedom in many of these countries, including Egypt, is "quite tenuous," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her remarks. The report highlights an October 2011 incident in which security forces attacked Christian demonstrators in Cairo, killing 25 and injuring 350. Government officials have not been held accountable. Though some positive measures have been taken by the interim government, and President Mohammed Morsi has gone out of his way to allay fears of Islamist rule, there is still evidence Coptic Christians are fleeing the country.

Egypt and other countries struggling to remake their governments and societies must be reminded that religious freedom is not a secondary concern, but rather that respect for religious conscience leads directly to economic and social growth. Undermining religious freedom only serves to undermine the other freedoms reformers have begun to achieve.

As the report puts it, "Countries whose constitution, laws, policies and practices protect religious freedom and human rights will be the most vibrant and stable."

But political transitions aren't the only situations that threaten religious freedom; demographic transitions can also lead to fear and resentment as populations change and religious minorities grow. The report documents growing anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic incidents and policies in Europe, and it also condemns laws like one passed in Hungary that reduced the number of recognized religious groups from more than 300 to fewer than 32.

It is especially concerning when governments fail to differentiate between peaceful religious practice and terrorist activities, such as in southern Russia, or when terrorist attacks continue to threaten the religious freedom of all citizens in countries like Nigeria and Iraq.

The report does offer some hope, citing examples of progress made in various countries around the world and efforts by the United States to promote religious freedom. And clearly, tracking abuses is only the beginning. Clinton rightly warned Egypt, for example, that the U.S. will be watching for actions, not just words.

Clinton unequivocally supported religious liberty abroad and soberly described the world as "sliding backwards." These strong statements on religious freedom coming from the State Department this week encourage us as we yearn for continued progress on this fundamental issue.

We applaud our nation's policy focus on religious liberty and, even more importantly, the underlying philosophy that recognizes the inherent right for people of all creeds to live the religious dictates of their own conscience.

"People awaken, work, suffer, celebrate, raise children and mourn, unable to follow the dictates of their faith or conscience," the report eloquently states. "With these reports, we bear witness and speak out."

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