- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

The United States is not doing enough to promote and protect international religious freedom, a panel of advocates warned Congress on Thursday.

Strengthening its religious freedom policies and taking more seriously the position of the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom are just two issues the Obama administration needs to address, and a good place to start is the State Department, the panel told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security.

The work of the State Department, though noble, is “ad hoc,” said Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

“As a consequence, the United States has had no impact on the global rise of religious persecution,” Mr. Farr said. “I cannot identify a single country under this administration that has advanced religious freedom or reduced religious persecution.”

Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the State Department’s bureaucratic culture needs to be addressed, especially considering the impending confirmation of ambassador-at-large nominee Rabbi David Saperstein.

“I do think that Rabbi Saperstein will face a challenge of sorts, of confronting the culture at the State Department that has tended to sideline these concerns,” Ms. Swett said. “I think it is critically important the next ambassador-at-large finds a way to have direct access to the secretary [of state] and to the president.”

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Along with giving more voice to the ambassador-at-large, she recommended the administration direct high-ranking officials to speak out on the importance of religious freedom, expand training on international religious freedom for State Department workers, and take more interest and care in designating nations as “countries of particular concern,” or CPC.

“When you have societies that repress, oppress, you create a seabed for extremism, for violence ultimately for the export of terrorism,” Ms. Swett said. “We need it to become a priority at the State Department, at the administration, at Congress.”

In her testimony, Ms. Swett pointed out that the past two administrations have not “fully utilized the CPC mechanism as a key foreign policy tool” that can bring sanctions against a country.

But Robert Smith, managing director at the International Center for Law and Religious Studies, said the administration should take less of a “shame and blame” approach and instead reward countries that do try to preserve religious freedom.

“While sanctions are important this isn’t where any of the real opportunities lie,” he said. “We need to focus on countries of particular opportunity. We need to do a much better job at identifying the latter, so we can help them find ways to find concrete and significant progress.”

Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, admitted that the State Department job’s is never done in terms of promoting and protecting religious freedom.

“It is an uphill climb,” she said. “While we can never do enough, we continue to strive to meet objectives both in letter and in spirit.”

Religious freedom is being threatened around the world, notably among Christians in Syria and Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State. Boko Haram also is wreaking havoc on Christians in Nigeria, while in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims are persecuted by a Buddhist majority.

“Religious freedom has long been neglected as part of the United States’ human rights agenda,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and subcommittee chairman. “Never has the time been clearer to strengthen America’s religious freedom policy.”

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