April 2010 – Washington, D.C.
In a statement released on 29 April 2010, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, detailed abuse of religious freedom rights in 28 nations, many of which are at the top of U.S. foreign policy agenda, including Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Commissioners also provided recommendations to the Obama Administration, the U.S. State Department, and members of Congress regarding ways in which U.S. policy can promote human rights and religious freedom in nations USCIRF identifies as the world’s most severe religious rights abusers.
USCIF chair Leonard Leo made observations critical of recent U.S. policy on religious freedom, which, he said, “is missing the mark.” Leo sees as “symbolic” the failure of the current administration to fill the vacant post of Ambassador-At-Large on International Religious Freedom. “In a world of foreign policy and diplomacy,”observed Leo, “where every word is chosen to convey meaning and interest,” the U.S. Administration might seem to be sending a signal that freedom of religion is not a priority. “Presidential references to religious freedom have become rare, often replaced at most with references to freedom of worship.” The Commissioner observes that “freedom of worship is only one aspect of religious freedom, and a purposeful change in language could mean a much narrower view of this right.” Leo suggests, for example, that “our foreign policy must be better at exposing and castigating the Potemkin Villages of religious worship, where churches might well be propped up for services, but where the faithful can’t get basic services because of their views, are gunned down with impunity while leaving church, are viciously caricatured and attacked by state-run press, and are otherwise relegated to second-class citizenship.” The oppressed of this world, Leo asserts, look to the United States “with hope and forbearance, to do more. In promoting the freedom of religion or belief abroad, the United States “can and must do more.”
USCIRF is a bipartisan Federal Commission, whose Commissioners are appointed by the President of the United States and the Senate and House of Representatives.
June 2010 – Washington, D.C.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has announced on 15 June 2010 President Barack Obama’s nomination of Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, filling an 18-month vacancy in this critical diplomatic post. “Dr. Johnson Cook is an experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service,” said Secretary Clinton. “President Obama could not have found a more fitting choice for this important position.” If approved, Dr. Johnson Cook will serve as a principal advisor on religious freedom to President and the Secretary of State, supported by the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
Dr. Johnson Cook holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Emerson College, Master of Arts from Columbia University, Teachers College, Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary. She taught at the New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996 and is a Founder/Board Member of the Multi-Ethnic Center (an enrichment program for youth), of which she has been Executive Director since 1996. She was co-Partner/Owner of Jonco Productions from 1994-2009 and is the Founder and President of Wisdom Worldwide Center and the owner of Charisma Speakers. From 1983-1996 she served as Senior Pastor to the Mariners Temple Baptist Church and has served as Senior Pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City since 1996 and as chaplain to the New York City Police Department since 1990. She served as an advisor on President Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council.
Also part of the 15 June announcement were two appointments to the nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Felice D. Gaer and Dr. William J. Shaw. Dr. Shaw is Immediate Past President of the National Baptist Convention, USA. Inc. and Pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Ms. Gaer, who has served on the Commission since 2001, including three times as Chair, three times as Vice Chair, and one time on the Executive Committee, was originally appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). A graduate of Wellesley College, Ms. Gaer directs the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights of the American Jewish Committee. She was 2010 Regents Professor at UCLA and remains the first American to serve as an Independent Expert on the UN Committee against Torture.
Membership of the Commission is defined in Section 201 of the International Religious Freedom Act. Three Commissioners are selected by the President, three by the Senate, and three by the House.” Current members of the Commission may be viewed here.
June 2010 – Washington, D.C.
In an opinion piece in the 25 June 2010 Washington Post, Thomas Farr, visiting professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, has issued sharp criticism of the Obama administration for “sidelining” U.S. religious freedom policy. Pointing to the much-criticized 18-month delay in the appointment of a Religious Freedom Ambassador, Farr praises the recent nomination of Pastor Suzan Johnson-Cook to the post. He notes, however, that her position will be undermined because the “Obama administration seems to have decided that other policy initiatives — outreach to Muslim governments, obtaining China’s cooperation, advancing gay rights — would be compromised by vigorous advocacy for religious freedom.” In fact, Farr asserts, “such a decision would harm the victims of religious persecution, hamstring key Obama initiatives and undermine U.S. national interests.”
Farr points to thousands of “humanitarian tragedies” that have arisen from worldwide denial of religious liberty, and notes that the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRF), which created the position of Religious Freedom Ambassador, “was passed unanimously because millions are denied religious freedom.” The absence of religious freedom, says Farr, is “highly correlated with unstable democracy, low economic growth, low female literacy rates and religion-based terrorism. Religious liberty could help solve these problems, undergird Obama’s Muslim strategy and advance women’s rights.” For this reason, “many bipartisan groups, such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, have urged the administration to view IRF policy as central to American interests.”
However, Farr asserts “the administration is not listening,” giving priority to other projects and effectively downgrading the post Pastor Johnson-Cook will fill, “in direct contravention” of the 1998 legislation that created the post. “Whatever one’s views on engaging Islam, cooperating with China or advancing gay rights,” says Farr, “surely we can all agree that religious freedom deserves our vigorous and sustained defense. Without it, no one is safe. And that includes us.”
Farr was from 1999 to 2003 the first director of the U.S. State Department’s office of international religious freedom, under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He is the author of “World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security.”
July 2010 – Salt Lake City
The critical value of working together to promote common causes such as the principles of religious freedom was a primary motivational factor addressed by Gayla Sorenson, Senior Fellow for the International Center for Law and Religious Freedom, as she participated in the panel discussion, “Digging Deep: Personal and Religious Motivations for Interfaith Work.” The panel was part of the…
May 2010 – Washington, D.C.
A diverse group of scholars and religious freedom activists have come together under the aegis of Freedom House to sign a letter dated 30 March 2010, urging President Barack Obama to move “quickly and strategically” to fill the post of United States Ambassador-At-Large for Religious Freedom. The fact that this post remains vacant more than a year into the Obama administration is seen by the group as a matter of “grave and urgent concern,” an observation reinforced by the Ninth Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, released on 1 May 2010. The Freedom House letter followed a similar plea from 18 members of the United States Congress, including Congressmen Trent Franks (AZ-02) and Emanuel Cleaver II (MO-05), Co-chairs of the International Religious Freedom Caucus, to make the appointment a priority: “As members of the bi-partisan International Religious Freedom Caucus, we strongly believe that the promotion of this fundamental human right will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity, and security throughout the world.” The Ambassador at Large, observed Congressman Franks, “is one of the most critical foreign diplomats the United States has.”
June 2010 – Holland, Michigan
Hussein Wario, a 35-year-old Kenyan who came to Michigan in 1996 to attend college on scholarship, has lost his federal-court appeal to remain in the United States. Wario graduated from Hope College in 2000. In 2009 he published Cracks in the Crescent, a book about his conversion from Islam to Christianity. Now living in Chicago and married to an American, Wario has become subject to deportation since he is no longer a student. Wario asserts that as a member of the exclusively Muslim, 80,000-member Orma tribe, he received…
June 2010 – TalkingFeather Radio
A blogtalkradio broadcast of 24 June 2020, on the program TalkingFeather Radio, featured Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee), president of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization founded in 1984 for Native Peoples’ traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion, and research. Mrs. Hajo spoke of how “the courthouse door is locked to Native Americans” when they seek to right the wrongs done when their sacred places of worship have been desecrated. “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act works for everyone else, but it doesn’t work for Native peoples,” said Mrs. Harjo. Since 1988, the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to allow federal religious freedom statutes to be used to protect Native American sacred places or the exercise of Native American religious freedom at sacred places.
Observances and ceremonies were held across the country from June 18 through June 23 as part of the initiative National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places. “Ceremonies are being conducted as Native American peoples engage in legal struggles with federal agencies that side with developers that endanger Native sacred places,” said Ms. Harjo. “Once again, we call on Congress to build a door to the courts for Native nations to protect our traditional churches. Many sacred places are being damaged because Native nations do not have equal access under the First Amendment to defend them.”
29 June 2010 – Bulletin
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, has entered the debate over Morocco’s deportation of some 100 Christians accused of proselytism, which is illegal in Morocco. Writing as a Guest Voice in the “On Faith” column of the Washington Post, Professor Rosensaft makes arguments in defense of Morocco. The column, with accompanying comments, may be read in the 29 June 2010 online edition of the Post. Our original 15 June report on U.S. response to the deportations follows.
June 2010 – Washington, D.C. and Casablanca
U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R., Va.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has on 15 June 2010 announced his intention to hold congressional hearings investigating the sudden deportation in March and April of more than 100 Christian humanitarian and social workers, educators, and businessmen, many of them Americans and some long-term residents with deep roots in the community. One immediate concern of Rep. Wolf is whether the U.S. should suspend its pledge of nearly $700 million in aid to Morocco under its Millennium Challenge Corporation compact (MCC), which includes an eligibility indicator of a government’s “ruling justly.”
The deportations apparently were triggered by complaints that some of the Christians were actually American missionaries who were secretly spreading Christianity among the poor. Charges were also made that a private American school (George Washington Academy) near Casablanca, advertised as secular, was inculcating Christian beliefs in students. Morocco’s U.S. Ambassador Aziz Mekouar explained to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that though conversion to Christianity is not a crime in Morocco, proselyting is. The deportation of the Christians, he explained, was necessary for the maintenance of public order.
In 1777 the Sultan of Morocco wrote to George Washington at Valley Forge, announcing that his nation would open its ports to American ships, which would “enjoy in them the same privileges and immunities as those of other nations.” Morocco thus became the first nation to recognize the new United States. The 1787 Treaty of Marrakech, marking peace and friendship between the two nations, is still in force, making it the longest unbroken treaty in the U.S history. The sparring over religious freedom issues, however, seems to be straining the relationship.
On 17 June, three Evangelical Protestant ministers made public comments, hoping to “present a fair and balanced picture of this unusual country” and thanking Morocco for being “a long-time friend to Christians and Americans — even when threatened for doing so.” Today, they note, “Morocco is a key ally in combating global terror.” As National Clergy Council president, the Reverend Rob Schenck observed, “Morocco is virtually unique in the Arab-speaking world. It has consistently topped the lists of religiously tolerant Islamic countries. Large numbers of Christians have lived and worked in Morocco for centuries. Hundreds of Christians continue to live in Morocco today. The relatively young King Mohammed VI has led unprecedented reforms in human rights, women’s rights and family law. Of the more than 40 countries I have visited, Morocco is by far one of the most friendly and hospitable.”
Recently expelled Christians, however, point to an increasingly fearful climate in Morocco, and a changing definition of proselytism, a definition motivated by a rising number of Christian converts, a definition that, they say, puts Christians in peril for “showing love.”
June 2010 – Washington, D.C.
In a statement released on 18 June 2010 the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged President Barak Obama to “publicly raise religious freedom and human rights transgressions” during his upcoming meetings with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The 18 July statement signed by USCIRF chair Leonard Leo stesses conerns about Russian activities and policies, including increased “use of anti-extremist legislation against religious and other groups that are not known to use or advocate violence” and protection of the “de facto favored status of the Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox Church,” which “results in difficulties for minority religious communities, particularly those officially deemed non-traditional.” Also noted are recent proclamations by Russian officials “that certain religious and ethnic groups are alien to Russian culture and society, thereby contributing to a climate of intolerance,” that “acts of vandalism against synagogues, churches, and mosques also go largely unpunished or are attributed to hooliganism,” and that the “European Court for Human Rights has issued 132 rulings on severe human rights abuses committed [by Russian officials] in Chechnya.”
The USCIRF is an independent government entity created by Congress to monitor religious freedom worldwide and make policy recommendations to the Executive and Legislative branches of the United States government. Its recommendations in this statement arise from the conviction “that raising freedom of religion or belief as an important issue in U.S.- Russian bilateral relations with President Medvedev will enhance this key relationship while exemplifying American respect for universal human rights.” It is only by enacting reforms of Russian laws and policies on human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, notes Chairman Leo, “that Moscow will become an effective partner with the United States on the common international interests in which the two nations are currently engaged.”
17 November 2010 – Washington, DC
President Obama has signed an Executive Order based on recommendations of a taskforce of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The aim of the Order is to make significant improvements to federally funded partnerships between the government and faith-based and neighborhood organizations by strengthening the constitutional and legal footing the partnerships and providing “greater support and clarity to these important organizations.” The recommendations were unanimously approved by the Advisory Council, which is “a group of church-state experts from across the ideological spectrum.”
The Executive Order creates a first of its kind interagency working group of federal agencies, co-chaired by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This organization will submit to the President “a report containing recommendations necessary to ensure that agency regulations and guidance documents are consistent with the fundamental principles of the Order.” It is hoped that greater uniformity in rules will “aid in the effort to ensure fidelity to constitutional principles and greater clarity for the nation’s hardworking nonprofits as they serve people in need in line with relevant guidelines.”
(Quotations in the paragraphs above are to the White House press release. Sources for the information in the paragraphs below include articles from Catholic News Agency, ABC News, and the New York Times.)
Critics of the Executive order have noted that on the one hand it goes too far and on the other hand doesn’t go far enough.
Attorney Jim Towey, who headed the Office of Faith-Based and Communitive Initiatives under President George W. Bush, asserts that the new order is unnecessary, noting that that no legal challenges or questions have been raised in the eight years that the Bush guidelines have been in place. Towey asserts, in fact, that the new regulations will have a “chilling effect” – dissuading religious groups who might otherwise want to partner with the government but would not be willing to divert time and energy away from their charitable missions to attend to the reporting and compliance requirements of the new guidelines.
Other critics assert that the new order does not go far enough in ensuring separation of church and state, as it does not ease concerns about preferential treatment for religious groups. Critics such as including the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Rev. Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian rights group, note that the order does not prohibit federal funding for groups who practice discrimination in hiring. In this, say critics, the president fails to fulfill a campaign promise.