Setting an Example

Melissa Reid September/October 2011
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Each year the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) releases a report of nations whose conduct marks them as the world's worst religious freedom violators and human-rights abusers.

USCIRF is composed of nine private-sector commissioners and the U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, the recently confirmed Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, who gave the keynote address at this year's Liberty-sponsored Religious Liberty Dinner.

This year the commission recommended that the secretary of state name the following nations [countries of particular concern] (CPCs): Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

"Within the ranks of CPCs impunity has become a matter of escalating alarm," said USCIRF chair Leonard Leo. "A number of countries are idly standing by in the face of violent attacks against religious minorities and even dissenting members of majority faiths, and this imperils religious freedom much the same way that direct state-sponsored repression does."

Liberty recently had the opportunity to query several key policymakers and human-rights advocates about the CPCs, and solicit for their recommendations as to how U.S. foreign policy could effect positive change in countries with serious religious freedom violations.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont spoke candidly to the situation: "Some of these countries, there's no direct way we can make changes. We have to set as an example that we believe in religious freedom. If you guarantee diversity, you have a democracy, and I worry very much as we see theocracies developing around the world. No government should impose a religion on their people. Everybody has to answer to their own conscience. It is wrong to impose a political ideology or religious ideology."

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was equally fervent on the significance of religious freedom.

"It's important that we consider religious freedom the most important component of our human rights policy," said Richardson. "That means having special envoys that carry messages in that area; it means organizing in the United Nations; it means organizing in the nongovernmental community; it means funding religious freedom issues as part of civil society programs."

For the first time, the 2011 USCIRF report recommended that Egypt be designated a CPC. "In the case of Egypt, instances of severe religious-freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by the government have increased dramatically since the release of last year's report, with violence, including murder, escalating against Coptic Christians and other religious minorities," said Leo. "Since President Mubarak's resignation from office in February, such violence continues unabated without the government's bringing the perpetrators to justice. Consequently, USCIRF recommends CPC designation for Egypt."

Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, a longtime advocate for issues of world peace and justice, shared her thoughts on the recent uprisings and political demonstrations in the Middle East and her forecast for the future of the religious minorities in that region.

Queen Noor mentioned that some of the most moving images she'd seen come out the coverage of those events was the image in Tahrir Square of Muslims protecting Christians in prayer on Sunday, and Christians protecting Muslims in prayer on Friday.

"I think it bodes well for the future and is also a reflection of reality," said the queen. "That spirit of solidarity and unity in the struggle for freedom and for pluralism and human rights is, I think, something emblematic. And I pray we'll see it soon in many, many parts of the Middle East. "

Melissa Reid is the associate editor of Liberty.

Article Author: Melissa Reid

Melissa Reid is the associate editor of Liberty.