WASHINGTON (CNS) — In many nations around the world, “religious freedom flourishes,” but in too many other countries, “people face daunting, alarming and growing challenges because of their faith,” a State Department official said at a Capitol Hill hearing Oct. 27.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, made the comments in testimony before a House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.
Also testifying was Robert George, who is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF. The bipartisan body was created in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, who is the subcommittee’s chairman and called the hearing, played a key role in the law’s passage 17 years ago.
In his testimony, Rabbi Saperstein remarked that the law “has had a significant impact on the way religious freedom is viewed not only in the United States but around the world” but “alarming” challenges remain.
Where religious freedom is protected, “people are free to choose their faith, change their faith, speak about their faith to others, teach their faith to their children, dissent from religion, build places of worship, and worship alone or in fellowship with others,” the ambassador-at-large said.
In such societies, interfaith cooperation thrives and religious communities contribute “significantly to the social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations,” he said.
In countries where people cannot freely practice their beliefs and where peaceful coexistence of many faiths “was once the norm,” Rabbi Saperstein said, “we have witnessed growing numbers of religious minorities being driven out of their historic homelands.”
“In too many countries, prisoners of conscience suffer cruel punishment for their religious beliefs,” he added.
He highlighted some of the key trends affecting religious freedom discussed in the U.S. State Department’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, released about two weeks earlier.
In a news conference on the report Oct. 14, he told reporters the greatest emerging challenge to religious freedom around the world is “abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”
His testimony on the Hill echoed those remarks.
In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State “has sought to eliminate anyone assessed as deviating from its own violent and destructive interpretation of Islam,” Rabbi Saperstein said, noting the displacement of Sunnis, Shias, Christians and Yezidis.
Thousands of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger have been killed or become victims of sexual violence and “unspeakable acts of terror” carried out by Boko Haram, he continued. The “blasphemy and apostasy laws” in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan and other countries have been used to justify violence in the name of religion, Rabbi Saperstein said. In his travels to Vietnam, he saw how religious groups have “to undergo onerous and arbitrary registration processes to legally operate.”
He said he spoke out in Myanmar against that nation’s laws forbidding interfaith marriage, religious conversion and monogamy. He also noted a persistent anti-Semitism in Europe, and a complicated religious situation in China.
On the positive side, Rabbi Saperstein said there are “countless religious communities, civil society groups and individuals around the world who hold their governments accountable for international commitments to protect freedom of religion and belief.”
He also cited progress made on goals he set when he was confirmed as ambassador-at-large late last year:
— Working to build partnerships with other nations to advance religious freedom together, because such global challenges “require a global response.”
— Strengthening State Department funding programs that have a direct impact on international religious freedom.
— Giving more focus to religious minority communities under siege.
— Building his office’s capacity to work on religious freedom globally by adding staff and devoting more staff time to “thematic issues,” like the relationship between religious freedom and “countering violent extremism.”
— Continuing to coordinate closely with the USCIRF on various efforts.
“No government, group or individual has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or restrain them from answering its call,” said George in his testimony. “Religious freedom applies to the holders of all religious beliefs and extends to those who reject religious beliefs all together.”
“By any measure, religious freedom is under serious and sustained pressure abroad,” he said, and noted that 84 percent of the world population identifies with a specific religious group.
Many studies show that in countries where religious freedom is protected, political democracy thrives and people’s economic well-being is strengthened.
“In contrast, nations that trample on religious freedom are more likely to be mired in poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical extremism,” George said, adding that instability in such countries has an impact on the security of not only the United States, but “overall global stability.”
“Religious freedom thus merits a seat at the table with economic and security concerns as the U.S. and other nations conduct their affairs,” he said.
George endorsed Smith’s bill, H.R. 1150, called the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.
The measure, which has bipartisan support, would strengthen U.S. diplomatic initiatives for religious freedom, including the training of diplomats in counter extremism to enhance their roles in U.S. response, and re-program State Department resources toward religious freedom protection and promotion.
According to Smith, the bill also has broad ecumenical support, including from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and over 80 ethnic minority groups and religious organizations, including Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Baha’i, and Jewish groups.
“The grim global realities suggest that the current State Department’s efforts are insufficient to stem the rise of persecution and the decline of religious freedom globally,” Smith said in an opening statement at the hearing.
“It is worth asking why and what can be done better,” he said. “It is worth asking whether new tools are needed to help U.S. religious freedom diplomacy address one of the great crises of the 21st century. If we don’t act, the problems will only get worse.”
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