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US State Department Eliminates Religious Freedom Section from Its Human Rights Reports

For the first time since the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 1998, the State Department has chosen to eliminate the section on religious freedom in its report to the commission. In its place it referred to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

The State Department also removed sections covering religious freedom from the Country Reports on Human Rights that it released on May 24, a full three months past the deadline Congress set for the release of these reports.

It has not gone unnoticed that the human rights reports, which include the period that covered the Arab Spring and its aftermath, are therefore missing. As a result the State Department provided no in-depth coverage for what occurred in the handling of Christians and other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries since the rise of the Islamist revolutionary movements in 2011.

A section on religious freedom has always been included in the State Department’s country-by-country reports on human rights until now. Coincidentally, this is also the first year the State Department would have been called on to report on the effect that the Arab Spring had on religious freedom in the region.

Leonard Leo, who recently completed a term as chairman of the USCIRF, says that removing the sections on religious freedom from the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights is a bad idea.

Speaking to Leo said, “The commission that I served on has some real concerns about that bifurcation, because the human rights reports receive a lot of attention, and to have pulled religious freedom out of it means that fewer people will obtain information about what’s going on with that particular freedom or right. So you don’t have the whole picture because they split it up now.”

Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Farr believes the omission was intentional. He says this may have simply been the result of a bureaucratic maneuver but “the other possibility is the Obama administration is downplaying international religious freedom.”

“I mean, it is important to note here that I do not know—I have no personal knowledge of the logic that went into removing religious freedom from the broader human rights report; but I also have observed during the three-and-a-half years of the Obama administration that the issue of religious freedom has been distinctly downplayed,” Farr said.

Farr is currently a visiting associate professor of religion and world affairs in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University where he directs the program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy and the Project on Religious Freedom at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown.

He has seen a shift from an emphasis on religious freedom toward other human rights issues.  “The ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, for example, who is the official charged by the law to lead U.S. religious freedom policy, did not even step foot into her office until two-and-a-half years were gone of a four-year administration,” he said.

“Other human rights priorities of the administration,” Farr added, “such as the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, were in place within months. So that tells you something. It tells me that this has never been a priority for the Obama administration, and it’s not now. So it seems to me plausible to at least question the removal of religious freedom from the human rights report.”

The result is that the International Religious Freedom Report contains no mention of the violence and murder mayhem aimed at Christians and other minorities in Muslim nations in Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

There is no mention of persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt in 2011 when 25 people were massacred during a demonstration over an Islamist attack on a church. And such attacks are not isolated to Egypt. In January 2012 the Islamist group Boko Haram was responsible for 54 deaths in Nigeria – 42 of them Catholics killed at church on Christmas Day. In 2011, the group killed more than 500 people and burned down or destroyed more than 350 churches in 10 northern states of Nigeria.

Chairman Leo says the fact is the current administration doesn’t make the proper distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of worship. “Going all the way back to the president’s speech in Cairo, they seem to be satisfied with Arab Spring countries and Middle Eastern countries providing freedom of worship, but not pressuring them on the broader freedom of religion … In Saudi Arabia, and in some of these countries, you may be able to draw curtains in your home and pray—but don’t take it outside your house. And certainly don’t imbue other aspects of your life with your religious sentiments,” Leo said.

As far as former U.S. diplomat Thomas Farr is concerned, “the administration has paid very little attention to the religion-state issues, in terms of policy effort, in terms of programs on the ground. I’m not speaking of speeches, or ‘raising the issue’—which are typical State Department platitudes for trying to change the subject—but in terms of actual programs on the ground, whether we’re talking about Libya, or Tunisia, or the most important of all, Egypt, the programs on the ground designed to advance religious freedom, as far as I know, are nonexistent.”

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