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Promoting international religious liberty provides stability, fights terrorism

Legislation formally establishing international religious freedom as U.S. policy has been on the books since 1998, but some experts say the government has implemented it mainly by “verbal advocacy”, without applying it strategically.

An Iraqi man inspects the damage in 2011 at a Catholic church after attacks in Kirkuk. (CNS photo/Khalil Al Anei, EPA)

Promoting international religious liberty is one of those things that America ought to be doing for its own sake, but doing it would also serve U.S. national security interests as an anti-terrorism tool. Yet indifference to religion at the upper reaches of the U.S. political culture has been a serious obstacle to that for years and remains so today.

Instead, says a veteran American foreign policy practitioner and observer, recent decades have brought a “global crisis” which has reached the point where religion-related terrorism by groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda now threatens much of the world, including the U.S., while the American foreign policy establishment overlooks promoting religious liberty as an appropriate response. “It is hard to sell a product in which you do not believe, let alone one you hold in contempt,” adds Thomas Farr.

Farr, a former Foreign Service officer who was first director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, teaches at Georgetown University’s foreign service school and heads the Washington-based Religious Freedom Institute and the religious freedom research project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center. He shared his views recently with a House foreign affairs subcommittee.

Meanwhile, on January 24, the Senate confirmed former Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas as U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom on a party line 49-49 vote, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking 50th vote. Brownback was first nominated by President Trump last July, but he was opposed by gay rights groups for what the Washington Post called “his record on LGBT rights.” Farr in his House testimony called Brownback’s confirmation “vitally important” to the religious liberty cause.

Legislation formally establishing international religious freedom as U.S. policy has been on the books since 1998, but the government has implemented it, according to Farr, mainly by “verbal advocacy” and occasional punitive measures, without its being either understood or applied strategically as a means of opposing terrorism.

Instead, he says, the U.S. has fought terrorism mainly by military force, law enforcement, and intelligence. “While each is necessary,” he adds, “none is sufficient to defeat Islamist terrorism.” The latter, he points out, is “not simply a military force but an ideology—a set of lethal ideas derived from Islam that have proven their capacity to motivate men and women to kill, torture, and destroy.”

Farr argues that religious freedom contributes to stability in nations that embrace it, and “stability grounded in religious freedom can strengthen resistance to religious extremism of all kinds.”

“A religious freedom diplomacy that employs evidence-based self-interest arguments can reduce religious persecution more effectively than do our current diplomatic methods, which are highly rhetorical, reactive, and ad hoc,” he adds. As if to illustrate his point, the State Department around the same time released its yearly list of countries guilty of “egregious” religious freedom offenses—Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Pakistan was placed on a “special watch list.” This may be gratifying, but it is fair to ask how much good it really does.

Singling out Iraq, which most non-Muslim minorities have fled in the face of violence directed at them, Farr says that unless those minorities, “especially the Christians,” return, the country is likely to become a “perpetual breeding ground” for the ideology of Islamist terror—something that would have “terrible consequences” for the region and the rest of the world. “Of all the counterweights to this development, none is more important that advancing religious freedom in Iraq,” he says.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Can we have religious liberty where an autocracy or theocracy control a society? Likewise, can we have religious liberty in an evangelical setting when one faith recruits members of another leaving a void in the target religion? I conclude that an evangelical religion cannot honestly fight for religious liberty when they offer none.

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