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Secretary of State John Kerry says religious freedom 'is a birthright of every human being'

Published: Wednesday, May 22 2013 1:30 p.m. MDT

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 17, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the State Department's fiscal 2014 foreign affairs budget. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Carolyn Kaster, AP

International religious freedom is a fundamental, universal right and a critically important foreign policy issue for America, new Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday in conjunction with the release of the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Kerry made a strong emotional appeal for the importance of religious freedom during a three-minute speech in the State Department briefing room.

“Freedom of religion is a core American value,” Kerry said. “It’s one that helped to create our country. It’s been at the center of our national consciousness since the 1600s. … It’s a universal value, and it’s enshrined in our Constitution and ingrained in every human heart. The freedom to profess and practice one's faith to believe, or not to believe, or to change one's beliefs — that is a birthright of every human being.”

The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook, followed Kerry with what she said is evidence that religious liberty is a positive force.

“It is becoming increasingly obvious that religious freedom is essential for safe, secure and prosperous communities,” Cook said.

Spanning hundreds of pages, the comprehensive religious freedom report says it “tells stories of courage and conviction but also recounts violence, restriction and abuse” from the 2012 calendar year.

“The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities,” the report states. “The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom.”

Countries of concern

This year’s International Religious Freedom Report includes a 23-page executive summary, seven appendices and detailed analysis of every sovereign country’s religion-related policies.

“Unfortunately, these reports don’t change much from year to year,” said Tim Shah, associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

Humorous barb about the report’s voluminous girth aside, Shah is passionate about the content of all those pages.

“The trend in international religious freedom is hellish and deeply discouraging,” Shah said. “Since at least the early 1990s (it) shows a very definite downward slope in global religious freedom.”

One of the key findings in each edition of the International Religious Freedom Report is the designation of “Countries of Particular Concern.” In accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State must determine which countries are committing “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

In the report released Monday, Kerry bestowed the ignominious “Countries of Particular Concern” distinction on the same eight nations that his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, singled out one year ago — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Far enough?

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom — an independent government entity that provides policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and Congress — issued a statement Tuesday lauding Kerry and the State Department for their newest religious freedom report.

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