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PostPosted: Wed Sep 19, 2007 6:09 pm    Post subject: United States Promotes Religious Freedom Worldwide Reply with quote

Annual report shows importance Americans attach to religious tolerance

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington -- The State Department’s annual Report on International Religious Freedom is not simply a means of criticizing human rights practices in foreign countries. As a reflection of the importance Americans attach to the free practice of religious beliefs, it requires the president to weigh those considerations in every bilateral relationship and consider punitive measures against religious persecutors.

The practice of monitoring and reporting on religious freedom “reflects a belief that religious liberty is not just a local practice in this country but is something like a fundamental entitlement of human beings regardless of the form of government under which they happen to live,” William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nongovernmental policy research organization, told USINFO September 18.

When the United States criticizes religious persecution elsewhere, it makes the claim that freedom of religion is of such importance that the principle has a moral application beyond the country’s own borders.

“We are saying that, consistent with our belief, this is a universal standard and not a local standard. It’s fair to criticize all nations, including on occasion our own, for not living up to it,” Galston said.

The United States has its own complex history of religious freedom. The Massachusetts Bay colony was founded by Puritans who faced state persecution in 17th-century England. However, the leaders of the colony were not tolerant of dissident religions, and their intolerance led to the establishment of the nearby Rhode Island colony, where the oldest Jewish synagogue in North America was built in 1763.

The 1791 Bill of Rights, which codifies many of the civil liberties the U.S. government is required to respect, includes the text, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This has prohibited the adoption of an official state religion and guarantees religious freedom to all Americans. But Galston points out that between the 1850s and the 1890s, the U.S. government persecuted the Mormon Church and “did its best to shut it down,” partly because it objected to the church’s early practice of polygamy.

“It has never been the position of our government or legal system that just anything goes if it occurs under the rubric of organized religion,” Galston said. “And so it’s a complicated discussion of where a government is entitled to draw the line between permitted and forbidden practices. And, as the Mormon experience shows, that line hasn’t always been located in the same place in American history.”

Galston said that, over time, international standards and sustained publicity of abuses can pressure regimes to change their policies toward religious dissidents. He credits the 1975 Helsinki Accords between the Cold War adversaries for leading to greater religious freedom in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries. As part of the accords, all of the signatory countries formally agreed on a set of human rights practices, including religious freedom.

“I think a lot of people were surprised … at how effective those accords were in creating a basis for long-term change. It didn’t occur overnight, but it was a framework that gave … dissidents something to hold on to, something to appeal to, in justifying their activities in the face of hostile regimes,” Galston said.

Similarly, almost every nation has signed the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, those nations, he said, “have undertaken to safeguard as best they can certain liberties, of which religious liberty is very high up on the list.”

Galston said that, in general, no nation wants to be on record as simply repressing religious practices. “And so there’s always either an effort to conceal it or to explain it in terms other than religious terms,” such as China’s claim that the suppression of Falun Gong is necessary to preserve public order and state security.

The U.S. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 to make the promotion of worldwide religious freedom an explicit U.S. policy, and so that the country might serve as an advocate for those who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.

To help monitor worldwide religious persecution, the legislation established an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department, currently John Hanford IV, whose office prepares an annual report for Congress on every country in the world.

If a country is found engaging in religious persecution, the legislation recommends punitive measures ranging in severity from a private demarche to trade sanctions. However, the president is permitted to waive punishment if he or she feels the punishment would not further the goal of ending the persecution or is, on balance, too detrimental to wider U.S. foreign policy interests.

“I can see little, if any, harm flowing from that effort to make the religious practices of other countries more transparent and more accountable,” Galston said in reference to the report. “And you don’t need to have undue faith in the good will of the human species to believe that, over time, transparency and accountability can make a difference.”

The full text of the 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom is available on the State Department Web site.

For more information, see International Religious Freedom.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov
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United States Promotes Religious Freedom Worldwide

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