The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has long been a small but important jewel in the crown of America's foreign-policy apparatus. From the Sudanese desert to the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Beijing, USCIRF confronts evil, builds bridges and shines the light on religious persecution.
I know; I used to work there. It was sometimes humbling to talk with my passionate, expert and diligent colleagues, whose wedding of diplomatic subtlety and bulldog courage enabled them to stand effectively on behalf of tens of thousands of people throughout the world whose sole crime was believing something different from what their governments said was acceptable.
Every year, USCIRF publishes a comprehensive report detailing how nations around the world repress religious liberty and/or actively attack (or allow attacks on) persons whose religious beliefs and practices upset their governments. An honest broker between a sometimes disinterested Congress and a bureaucratic State Department, USCIRF is a burr under the saddle of persecutors from Laos to Belarus.
USCIRF sends delegations to offending countries and those whose policies jeopardize or countenance religious persecution. In hovels in southern Sudan, in the halls of the United Nations and hundreds of places in between, American citizens serving under USCIRF's banner call some of the world's most unsavory political leaders to account.
Defending religious liberty is in America's national interest: Just ask the dissidents of the former Soviet bloc, who knew Ronald Reagan was their champion and, thus, that America was their friend. This is but one example of how protecting and defending the myriad men, women and children who suffer for their (predominantly Christian) faith burnishes our nation's image in the developing world and in dictatorships like China and Cuba.
Much of the rest of the world is deeply religious, yet the import of religious conviction as an animating factor is diminished regularly by senior American diplomats. Their secular worldview considers religion a sometimes quaint but always irksome component of international relations, and they do their best to avoid it. President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, went so far as to describe terrorists as "victims" of "political, economic and social forces" and said they should not be described in religious terms.
So, the next time any Americans are murdered by self-described Islamic jihadists, just think of the perpetrators as victims. That's what Uncle Sam is now telling us.
This absurdity is explained by diplomatic historian Joseph Loconte, who writes: "American foreign policy is impoverished by an 'uncompromising Western secularism' which makes the danger of religious extremism more likely. ... [Thus] despite a world abuzz with religious fervor, the U.S. government has been slow to respond effectively to situations where religion plays a global role." Why? Because our government is staffed by persons whose self-conscious sophistication trumps any allowance for active faith.
That's why President Obama's recent announcement that he is appointing Suzan Johnson Cook to be chairman of USCIRF is so troubling. Although I'm sure she is a nice person, "Dr. Sujay," as she styles herself (she has a doctorate in ministry from the nation's most liberal Protestant theological institution, New York's Union Seminary), has no background - none - in religious liberty, diplomacy or foreign policy. She serves as a pastor and motivational speaker; I'm not sure how this latter skill will help her deal with the hard-hearted pols of Beijing or northern India.
The president also appointed William J. Shaw, immediate past president of the National Baptist Convention, USA and pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, to USCIRF's board. Mr. Shaw has been involved in many fine charitable activities, but, like Ms. Cook, has no background in religious liberty. From their official biographies, it would seem that neither Mr. Johnson nor Ms. Shaw has ever been outside the borders of the United States.
Put simply, these are political appointments of the first rank, sinecures given as electoral bon mots. They also demonstrate how little Mr. Obama evidently cares about international religious freedom.
Last month, Hani Salim Wadi was murdered in Kirkuk, Iraq. His crime? He was a Christian. His death was the latest in a long line of attacks on Iraqi Christians by Muslim neighbors. In the words of Iraq's Chaldean Christian Archbishop Emil Nona, "The violence continues without relief." According to the respected Christian anti-persecution ministry Voice of the Martyrs, since 2003, Christian leaders, churches and businesses in Iraq have been targeted by Islamic extremists, and many believers have fled the violence. In October 2008, more than seven Christians were killed and more than 200 families displaced. The Christian community in Iraq is estimated to be just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, or about 800,000.
In a particularly sharp rebuke to America's enterprise in liberating an oppressed country, Christians are suffering in Iraq. Brave Americans have died so that all Iraqis - not just Muslims - can live freely.
America has long been the single exceptional and indispensable nation. In jettisoning the centrality of religious liberty to the American foreign-policy enterprise, what we long have been is in sharp decline.
Robert Schwarzwalder, former acting director of communications at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, is senior vice president of the Family Research Council.
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