Commentary Magazine


RE: Obama’s Lousy Record on Religious Freedom

As I noted yesterday, the U.S. Commission on International Freedom released its annual report. Its chairman, Leonard Leo, writes a column highlighting some of its findings. Two in particular stand out, in large part because U.S. policy is so badly out of sync and at odds with those striving to promote religious freedom.

First is Sudan. Critics on the right and left have deplored the administration’s feckless envoy, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, and the administration’s “spectacularly naïve perspective—and accompanying policy of appeasement.” Meanwhile, the religious atrocities continue, as Leo details:

USCIRF has focused since its inception on Sudan because Khartoum’s policies of Islamization and Arabization were a major factor in the Sudanese North-South civil war (1983-2005). During that period, Northern leaders, including Sudan’s current President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, exploited religion to mobilize northern Muslims against non-Muslim Southerners by appealing to Islam and calling for jihad. USCIRF remains concerned about continuing severe human rights violations committed by the Sudanese government against both non-Muslims and Muslims who depart from the government’s interpretation of Islam; the two million Southerners who reside in the North as internally displaced persons (IDPS); and the dramatic need for international support to develop Southern Sudan. … As the USCIRF delegation carried out its work, visiting displaced South Sudanese Christians living in camps outside Khartoum, the ominous sights of barricaded streets, armed military and security personnel around the National Assembly were a sobering reminder of the challenges to peace that lay ahead for Sudan.

Gration and the administration remain mute.

Then there is Egypt. The administration again is apathetic, it seems, to the religious persecution taking place there. Rep. Frank Wolf observed this about the virtual enslavement of Coptic women: “I expect the State Department to do nothing because that’s the way the State Department has been responding.” Leo explains what fails to interest the Obami:

In Egypt, serious problems of discrimination and intolerance against non-Muslim religious minorities and disfavored members of the Muslim majority remain widespread. The Egyptian government’s inadequate prosecution of those responsible and the politically expedient and occasional use of an ineffective reconciliation process, an improper substitute for conviction and punishment, have created a climate of impunity. Although the government has arrested three Muslim men and put them on trial for the Coptic Christmas Eve attack on six Coptic Orthodox Christians and one Muslim, the Coptic community fears reprisals and is skeptical that the government will either follow through with the trial of the three men in question or use its authority to create an environment in which individuals safely exercise their internationally guaranteed rights of religious freedom. However, President Mubarak publicly condemned the violence and acknowledged its sectarian character, and the Egyptian press for the first time called for a national conversation and an investigation on the root causes of this violence. Juxtaposed against these signs are the USCIRF delegation’s visits to the Muslim Koranist, Jehovah Witnesses, and Baha’i communities, each victimized by state-sponsored discrimination and repression. The government also has responded inadequately to combat widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.

The administration’s verbiage provides a clue to its disinterest in elevating this issue to a top priority. This report explains:

[C]ommission chairman Leonard Leo says the shrinking importance of religious freedom can be seen in the Obama administration’s evolving rhetoric on the issue. Whereas Mr. Obama came into office speaking of “freedom of religion,” Mr. Leo says, the president more recently has opted for speaking about “freedom of worship,” which the USCIRF chairman says has a more limited connotation. “Freedom of religion” is more broadly understood as a universal right and more specific in its referral to religions than is the more ephemeral phrase “freedom of worship,” some religious experts say. Critics say Obama’s recent preference for “worship” raises doubts about the administration’s determination to aggressively press for the rights of religious minorities in “friendly” countries such as Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan – all of which receive billions of dollars in US aid. The president referred to “freedom of worship,” for example, during his Asia trip last fall, when he was castigated by rights groups for downplaying the issue of religious freedom in China and the status of the Dalai Lama.

The administration’s slothful indifference to the uptick in religious persecution in the “Muslim World” stands in stark contrast to its obsession with the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Months and months of diplomacy, countless speeches and appearances by the president and high-level officials, condemnations for the Jewish state, and a special envoy are all focused on what is largely a fruitless endeavor — getting to the bargaining table (not even the same table at which the Israelis sit) with recalcitrant Palestinians who lack the will and the ability to make a peace deal. Meanwhile, virtually no time or focus and no ambassador is named to deal with a problem that could, if sufficient resources were devoted, be ameliorated by a forceful American policy. It is a vivid display of the misplaced priorities and wasted opportunities that characterize much of the Obama foreign policy.

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