The State Department’s 2017 International Religious Freedom Report was released today. Issued under the direction of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, with guidance from other senior officials in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), the report serves as a guide to the work yet to be done on this issue in many places around the world.
The places which one might expect to be covered in detail (North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, etc.) featured discussions of the major persecution taking place within their borders. Yet countries less well-known as religious persecution hot spots were featured too. For example, the report notes that in Burkina Faso, several individuals were killed and others threatened “if they did not start teaching the Quran in schools instead of the regular curricula,” and the discussion of the Comoros observes the strict enforcement and preference for Sunni Islam in law. Muslim/Christian interreligious conflict continues to simmer at a lower level in a number of sub-Saharan countries, in some worse than others. Discomfort and conflict persists within these communities when one is seen as having the upper hand in government or society. While the concerns in these countries are often relatively less serious, it is important to address them before they flare up into larger, more destabilizing situations. And regardless, all religious freedom violations, however small, deserve to be addressed as a matter of principle.
Human rights and humanitarian concerns drive much of the State Department’s reporting on international religious freedom which we see reflected in the 2017 report. Very often, in each country’s section of the report, there is a note stating that the U.S. embassy or its officials in that country hosted meetings or met with religious or government leaders to raise religious freedom concerns. While this attention is good and helpful, there is much more to the story of religious freedom. Not least in this story is the emerging proof of religious freedom’s benefit to security and economic prosperity — proof which is not being raised by our diplomats and foreign policy professionals, whether in Foggy Bottom or around the world.
As long as religious freedom is seen merely as a humanitarian issue, governments and leaders who see nothing in it for themselves will be reluctant to address it, and we will be resigned to continue the worldwide backsliding on religious freedom that has occurred in recent years. But when the United States seriously and systematically begins to show others around the world that religious freedom is in their interest — their security and economic interests — we can begin to make headway.
Raising religious freedom as a human right is the right thing to do. But we have only achieved so much with this approach. If we increasingly explain the many benefits of religious freedom to those who otherwise wouldn’t care about it, they may begin to see a real shift towards protecting it. Whatever else, doing what we can to protect religious freedom for the maximum number of people around the world is always the right thing to do.
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