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Carolyn Kaster, AP
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)
Freedom of religion is a core American value. 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. —Secretary of State John Kerry

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.

“(The commission) congratulates the State Department … for its admirable work reporting on the many ways religious freedom is violated around the world,” chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett said via press release. “Given that religious freedom conditions are deteriorating in many countries, the State Department’s extensive documentation of the nature and extent of these violations is especially important.”

Despite offering high praise for the State Department, the Commission of International Religious Freedom still thinks Kerry should be more aggressive in identifying countries of particular concern. In fact, the Commission of International Religious Freedom issued its own findings on April 30.

In that report, the commission singled out seven additional countries it wants the State Department to tag as countries of particular concern — Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

Moral matter or practical point?

As executive director of American Religious Freedom at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Brian W. Walsh is primarily concerned with preserving and promoting domestic religious liberties. But Walsh also believes international religious freedom is an important policy pursuit for America — and to substantiate such a sentiment he relies on his inner sense of morality.

“We’ve long been the world leader in protecting religious freedom,” Walsh said. “Because of that, we have moral authority. Just as the West took on apartheid in South Africa, it’s important for those who have a tradition and practice of protecting religious freedom to make sure that the oppressed around the world are being remembered and that such injustice does not go overlooked.”

Shah, though, sees a much more practical reason for promoting international religious liberty. He said freedom of religion is foundational for the type of long-term stability contemporary societies need to flourish.

“Ambassador Cook is absolutely right: Religious freedom is not just an abstract human right,” Shah said. “It is a recipe for societal success. When societies respect religious freedom, they do better. They succeed.

“ ... In societies where there is religious repression, you tend to have extremely unstable societies in which there is at least massive distrust, and often open violence and conflict. Religious freedom prevents that from happening; it creates a society in which it says to everybody, ‘You have a secure place here.’”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.