Liberal Mormon and conservative Catholic join forces for religious freedom

Published: Monday, Nov. 5 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

The Dalai Lama is presented with the inaugural Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Katrina Lantos Swett, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Dalai Lama, Annette Lantos, widow of Rep. Tom Lantos, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


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When a punk rock group got sent to prison for a protest at a Moscow cathedral earlier this year, Katrina Lantos Swett was an ocean away— but not all that surprised. To her, the harsh reaction reflected a tight link between the Putin regime and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The severe sentence imposed on protestors for trespassing in a Moscow church — the court called it “hooliganism” — may at first glance seem like an odd focal point for a U.S. religious freedom advocate. The punkers were, after all, behaving somewhat irreligiously.

But Swett sees rule of law as being at the core of religious freedom, and sees the disproportionate punishment in Russia as a threat to conscience, and thus to religious liberty.

“It is not a healthy or a safe thing for a nation to view its national identity as wrapped up in the orthodoxy of any faith,” Swett said.

Swett is something of a unicorn. A convert to Mormonism, she describes herself as “both completely Jewish and also deeply Latter-day Saint.” And, she might add, she is also a committed Democrat. A rare blend all around.

Now, she's also one of the most important defenders of religious freedom in the U.S., if not the world. In March, she became head of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a little known oversight body commissioned by Congress to monitor abuse of religious minorities abroad and keep U.S. foreign policy attending to the issue.

Created out of fears that U.S. diplomacy tends to slight religious freedom in favor of trade relations and geopolitical strategy, USCIRF’s watch lists over the past decade have raised hackles from Vietnam, which has been oppressing Christian minorities for years, to Turkey, which was outraged to be included on the 2012 list.

USCIRF to date has focused on monitoring and reporting religious freedom abuses and listing consistent violators, detailing abuses in an annual report and lobbying for sanctions.

Swett wants to expand that vision to get the U.S. public thinking and talking more about international religious freedom.

Something of a unicorn

The daughter of two Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors, Swett’s life work was shaped before she was born. Her path was blazed by her father, Tom Lantos, an outspoken human rights advocate who represented San Francisco in Congress for 27 years.

After her dad passed away, Swett took over leadership of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice, which carries on his work through U.S. Congressional fellowships for foreign students, an annual prize issued to notable human rights leaders, and grants offered to deserving advocacy groups.

Swett sees her hybrid LDS and Jewish identities as “very relevant” to her work on religious freedom. “Both of these faith communities have experienced intense persecution at different times,” she said.

“Being raised by Holocaust survivors who saw most of their family and friends and lives destroyed because of religious bigotry drove home to me how fundamental freedom of religion is to building a decent society.”

An unpaid group of rights advocates appointed by leaders of both congressional parties and the president, USCIRF’s capacity lies strictly in its power to focus attention, both of the world and of the U.S. government.

Swett’s vision for USCIRF is to expand its visibility at home so as to further its effectiveness in enhancing religious liberty abroad.

Eyes on Russia

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