What Is the US Doing About Religious Persecution Worldwide?

While President Obama calls religious freedom a “key objective of US foreign policy,” experts question how high a priority combating persecution really is.

Not a week after President Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast that promoting religious freedom is a “key objective of US foreign policy” under his administration, a congressman challenged him to put his money where his mouth is.

“The indifference on the part of the administration is shocking,” Rep. Christopher Smith, R-NJ, said in an interview February 11. Smith, who earlier in the day chaired a hearing on growing persecution of Christians worldwide, cited Obama’s failure to appoint a new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, a post mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. 

“A little-remembered fact about that [legislation] is that the Clinton administration was against it—on the record—only to sign it when we had an overwhelming veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate,” Smith said in the interview. “But the hard lift in the early go, getting it out of the House and on the floor was unbelievable…. They were totally against it. So that mindset remains among certain appointees in the State Department.”

That may explain why the post has been vacant during much of Obama’s presidency, except for the two-and-a-half years it was held by Suzan Johnson Cook. Cook left the post in October. 

Meanwhile, the persecution of Christians around the world is “expanding exponentially,” Smith told CWR. “There needs to be a concerted effort by the US government, and it has not been there. If anything, we’ve been enablers by our silence, and I mean the Obama administration by name. And then the more subtle forms of persecution and discrimination, like we’re seeing with the HHS mandate, which is by design and will be putting churches out of business if they are to prevail.”

Obama, speaking at the February 6 National Prayer Breakfast, promised to appoint an international religious freedom ambassador soon. He also promised to oppose the laws criminalizing blasphemy and the defamation of Islam in certain countries, which have been cited as reasons for some of the persecution many Christians are experiencing.

“With this president, I’m waiting to see if there are any deeds, [any] concrete action other than talk,” Smith said when asked whether he agreed with some observers that the president’s statement was a shift in policy. “Talk is cheap in Washington, just like all the talk on Obamacare and so many other issues. I hope. He’s meeting with [Chinese President] Xi Jin-ping next month. He should have a list of political prisoners of conscience and make it public what he says [to Xi Jin-ping] rather than something that happens in the back room with a very meek approach.”

“On blasphemy laws, very little has been done in this administration; let’s hope there’s a change of heart,” Smith commented.

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, Smith brought together a number of experts on religious freedom to discuss the growing problem of the persecution of Christians. Some of the experts, as well as fellow congressmen, criticized the Obama Administration for its inaction, which they said sends a signal that the United States doesn’t care about the fate of Christians.

Political pressure and economic sanctions recommended

Elliott Abrams, a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a body that was created by the International Religious Freedom Act, also expressed concern about the vacancy of the Ambassador-at-Large position.

“USCIRF urges the administration to offer a nomination speedily, as the president suggested he would in his remarks last week at the National Prayer Breakfast,” Abrams said. “And we urge Congress to take up the nomination equally fast. The Ambassador-at-Large is supposed to be the key official inside the US government for coordinating and developing US international religious freedom policy.  However, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor dramatically reduced the rank of the Ambassador-at-Large.  This reduction in rank constitutes a major change in the structure IRFA established and a thwarting of congressional intent. USCIRF also recommends that the Obama administration fulfill IRFA’s intent that the Ambassador-at-Large be a ‘principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad’ by ensuring he or she has direct access to the President and the Secretary of State when it is truly needed.”

Abrams commented: “If there is a long vacancy, it weakens the attention of the Executive Branch; it sends a message to countries around the world about our inattention and lack of concern.” He also lamented that the system set up by the act, in particular the designation of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), “is not working properly; it’s not working the way it was established in the Act. It hasn’t under several administrations…. The Obama administration made CPC designations only once in the first four years, and the act requires them every year.”

He said that under IRFA the United States can “take action against individual members of a foreign government who are involved in religious persecution—officials of that government, officials of provinces, officials of units of that government—to be able to name names and say, for example, those individuals will never be admitted to the United States. So there’s lots of flexibility, and I’m afraid we’re not using it.”

The Obama administration was not the only target of criticism at the hearing, however. Abrams said that USCIRF has repeatedly raised the importance of annually designating “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) and that “neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have fully utilized the CPC mechanism as the key foreign policy tool it was intended to be.”

“Neither have designated CPCs in a timely manner nor issued specific presidential actions based on these designations,” Abrams said. “For instance, the Obama administration issued CPC designations only once during its first term, and while the Bush administration issued several designations, it also allowed the annual designation process to fall off track. However, IRFA requires a CPC designation annually. Such designations enable the United States to raise concerns about systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom at the highest levels with foreign governments and seek improvements in human rights conditions.”

Asked whether the presence of American businesses in places like China is actually helping to protect the rights of religious believers, Abrams said his impression is that “it’s had no positive impact.”

“We did a lot of business with Nazi Germany too in the 1930s, and that didn’t have much of an effect,” he said. “What does have an effect is when we put pressure on governments. One of the things that leads to religious freedom in Vietnam rising or falling is Vietnam’s impression of what it needs to do to get government approval for that commerce to increase.… It’s up to the US government to set the rules and keep the pressure on.”

Vietnam is pertinent right now because, according to Smith, there are secret negotiations going on to form a Trans-Pacific Partnership with the communist country, which has a history of persecuting the Catholic Church. “Vietnam seeks entry, and if we focus on the utility and profits of increased trade without holding Vietnam to account for its human rights record, we miss an opportunity to better the lives of those who are beaten, imprisoned, and even killed for their faith,” he said.

Abrams also recommended taking a lesson from the Cold War and being specific in speaking about political prisoners. “People in the Gulag told us that the mentioning of names was critically important, when they heard it from a president, a secretary of state, members of congress. … Adopting political prisoners of conscience, which about 20 members of have done, is a great idea too.”

Harking back to the Reagan administration, Abrams said then-Secretary of State George P. Schultz “made sure human rights issues were raised at the beginning of meetings with the Russians…not the last thing when the clock was running out. I think there will be cases where talking about it doesn’t work, going after individuals will fail, and you may want to impose some form of economic sanctions to get the message home: ‘This will cost you in your relations with the United States; we will not have normal relations if this kind of persecution goes on.’”

IRFA’s author Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA, who is a hero to many advocates of religious freedom, also attended the hearing. Only Republican members of the subcommittee were present at the hearing. 

Archbishop Chullikatt testifies on increase in persecution

Also appearing before the panel was Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations in New York. He briefed the committee both as someone who participates in activities at the UN and as the Vatican’s former nuncio to Iraq and Jordan.

The Indian-born archbishop’s participation was a rare instance of a Vatican representative’s appearance before a congressional panel. Because protocol proscribes someone with the rank equivalent to an ambassador from testifying before a congressional committee, Smith suspended the hearing in order to allow a briefing from the archbishop.

Archbishop Chullikatt’s talk was at once philosophical and practical.  “Religious persecution, be it overt or discrete, is emerging with an increased frequency worldwide,” he said. “Even in some of the western democracies, the longstanding paragons of human rights and freedoms, we find instances of increasingly less subtle signs of persecution, including the legal prohibition of the display of Christian symbols and imagery—legitimate expressions of belief that for centuries have enriched culture—be they on the person or on public property. This suggests a profound identity crisis at the heart of these great democracies, which owe to their encounter with Christianity both their origin and culture, including their human rights culture.”

He said it is important that Christians work together to ensure religious freedom for all. “It is crucial that every government guarantee religious freedom for each and every person in its country not only in its legislation but also in praxis,” he said. “Strictly connected to freedom of religion is respect for conscientious objection, of which everyone should be able to avail himself or herself. Conscientious objection is based on religious, ethical, and moral reasons, and on the universal demands of human dignity. As such it is a pillar of every truly democratic society and, precisely for this reason, civil law must always and everywhere recognize and protect it.”

Like other speakers, Archbishop Chullikatt also brought a perspective that reminded listeners that the problem is much more widespread than what has happened recently in Egypt and Syria. In response to a question from Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-PA, the archbishop said the Holy See is “really worried” about anti-conversion laws in India. “India is expected to be one of the great democracies in the world and has thrived so far because of its multi-religious, multicultural democratic system,” he said. He called it “absurd” that someone who wants to change his religion needs a certificate from the government. “The United States can do a lot by putting pressure on the Indian government,” Archbishop Chullikatt said. “The laws are already there, it’s just a matter of implementing the laws at the state level so these minorities are protected.”

Pitts, who is not on Smith’s committee but was invited to attend the hearing, said that other countries in recent years have “increased the enforcement or adoption of laws that deter conversion or deem certain expressions of faith as blasphemy, whether it be Kazakhstan—its 2011 laws restricting religious activity—or Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law, or the anti-conversion laws in many states in India, including the populous state of Gujarat.”

“Our government holds an obvious venue for addressing these issues through our dialogue with those states,” Pitts said. “Specifically, our government can and must speak out and elevate policies that address these issues. Last year Keith Ellison (D-MN) and I introduced a resolution calling for the repeal of the anti-conversion laws in India and calls for religious freedom and related human rights to be included in the United States-India strategic dialogue. It’s my belief that we need a corresponding escalation of policy to all of our allies and within all of our strategic relationships in order to combat this worldwide and systemic persecution.”

Global war on Christians “wrapped in a blanket of silence”

Also speaking to the panel was John Allen, Jr., the longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who is now an associate editor at the Boston Globe. Allen, author of The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution, said estimates of the number of Christians killed for their faith in these first years of the third millennium range from one victim a day to one fatality an hour.

Allen wondered aloud why the global war on Christians is “often wrapped in a blanket of silence, not only by the secular media but even within Christian churches themselves.”

“In a word, I believe we have a problem of narrative,” he said. “Ordinary people in the West are conditioned to see Christianity as the agent of repression, not its victim.  Say ‘religious persecution’ to most Westerners, and the images that come to mind are the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, Bruno and Savonarola, the Salem witch trials—chapters of history in which Christianity is cast as the villain. The fact that this narrative is badly out of date has done little to reduce its hold on the Western imagination. The truth is that the typical Christian in today’s world is not an affluent American male pulling up to church in a Lincoln Continental; it’s a poor black woman and mother of four in Botswana, or a poor Dalit grandmother in Orissa.”

Dana Rohrabacher, R-CA, chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats and a member of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment, sat in on Smith’s hearing. “We have here in America the opportunity to make a difference with our outrage,” he said. “But we have to express that outrage, and we have to make sure our voices are loud, clear and specific. … I think America is a little hesitant about being as aggressive as we should be, and I think that’s because in a world that’s filled with suffering—and we are a country in which a vast majority of the people consider themselves Christians—we are self-conscious of the fact that if we speak up with a loud voice about the persecution of Christians this will appear self-serving to our own political end. The fact is Christians are being slaughtered today, and that slaughter is being ignored.”

Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer with the Hudson Institute, commented later on the significance of the hearing.

“The fact that this hearing is taking place and that the Vatican itself has sent a witness is a reflection of the dire situation facing Christian minorities in many parts of the world,” she said in an email. “The Vatican’s ambassador singled out the Arab Middle East, where he pointed out that churches are regularly attacked. He has drawn attention to the region of the world where the Christian presence itself is under threat of eradication.”

“The witnesses today discussed many policy actions that are needed to help the persecuted Christians,” said Shea. “There is in fact no single action that will resolve the crisis, but the immediate appointments of a religious freedom ambassador and a special envoy on religious minorities would go a long way to finding policy solutions.”

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About John Burger 22 Articles
John Burger is news editor of Aleteia.org.