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International religious-freedom efforts split on policies and structures

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 7:52 a.m. MDT

U.S. President George W. Bush walks past Vietnamese choir members after services at Cua Bac Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov. 19, 2006. His visit coincided with the State Department removing Vietnam from a list of religious freedom abusers, an action that still divides the community of International Religious Freedom advocates. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) U.S. President George W. Bush walks past Vietnamese choir members after services at Cua Bac Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam on Nov. 19, 2006. His visit coincided with the State Department removing Vietnam from a list of religious freedom abusers, an action that still divides the community of International Religious Freedom advocates. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles on escalating threats to religious freedom and U.S. efforts to control those threats. Yesterday we outlined current problems and the competing values at home and abroad that make effective action difficult. Today, we survey U.S. policy responses since 1998, with emphasis on contentious governmental structure and strategic divisions among religious religious liberty advocates.

Part one: Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate

As Michael Cromartie concluded a February 2006 meeting with a high-ranking government official in Bangladesh, the two walked to the elevator. The official was in a friendly mood and offered to buy dinner the next time he was in Washington. "But meanwhile," he added as Cromartie stepped into the elevator, "get us off that damn list!"

The "list" appeared in the annual report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, of which Cromartie was chairman at the time. The Commission comprises one portion of a U.S. policy response to religious persecution abroad that became law in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The law also created an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department. Together, these two bodies aim to catalog and expose abuses, help nations improve their religious freedom climate, and keep American foreign policy focused on the issue.

Severe cases go on a list of Countries of Particular Concern, a finding that triggers flexible sanctions. For 14 years, the commission has recommended countries for the list and has placed less severe cases on a watch list. Only the State Department can actually designate a nation as a Country of Particular Concern, and it has often resisted calls to add new countries.

In December, the controversial International Religious Freedom Commission was nearly allowed to expire when a last-minute congressional compromise saved it. At the same time, the Obama administration has significantly downgraded the role of the religious freedom ambassador in the State Department, critics say, leaving the agenda adrift there. The tale of these two entities demonstrates how international religious freedom became a core human right in U.S. foreign policy, though one whose place remains insecure and contentious.

Distrust leads to duality

The International Religious Freedom Act's agenda developed in an atmosphere of distrust. Some diplomats and human rights activists worried that this new agenda aimed to mainly serve Christians and would shove other more traditional human rights matters aside. Nonetheless, the compromise bill was ultimately endorsed by the Clinton administration, and it passed 98-0 in the Senate and by unanimous voice vote in the House.

Fearing indifference or hostility in the State Department, some religious freedom advocates wanted the commission to be a watchdog, exposing abuses abroad and keeping them from being swept under the rug at home. Its job was to "hold the State Department's feet to the fire," as one advocate put it. Others felt the commission should be a think tank, producing more classified briefings and fewer press releases. In the end, the watchdog vision carried the day.

Distrust is the norm in American politics, reaching back to James Madison. Today's legislators fear tomorrow's executive will undermine their project. Independent commissions have been used to calm such fears since the time of Woodrow Wilson. But since 1998, the chasm between the commission's watchdog and think tank roles has caused friction within the international religious freedom community.

Defusing opposition

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.

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.

The hesitancy at the State Department was visible at a November 2011 House oversight hearing chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who specifically invited Ambassador Johnson Cook to address the hearing. He was told by the State Department that she could only do so if accompanied by another State Department official. This was an unusual request, sources say, given that Luis Cdebaca, the Ambassador-at-Large over human trafficking issues, routinely testifies on the Hill without a handler. The State Department declined to comment for this article.

After the awkward handling of the religious freedom ambassador, Rep. Smith's opening statement noted her absence. "Given the important responsibilities assigned to the ambassador-at-large pursuant to the IRF Act," he said, "including advancing the right to religious freedom abroad through diplomatic representations on behalf of the United States, our subcommittee looks forward to the opportunity to hear from Ambassador Johnson Cook when she is allowed to testify on her own."

With the apparent diminution of the IRF Ambassador, some IRF advocates argue, the ongoing importance of the external commission is doubly clear. But as with so much else, they disagree about what if any changes to its operations are in order.

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles on escalating threats to religious freedom and U.S. efforts to control those threats. Yesterday we outlined current problems and the competing values at home and abroad that make effective action difficult. Today, we survey U.S. policy responses since 1998 and outline why some religious liberty advocates question the Obama administration's commitment to the cause.

Read part one of the series: Religious freedom as a core human right: A three-sided, global debate

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