The U.S. should actively promote religious liberty, a critical right that forms a foundation for a healthy society, the head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told members of Congress.
“This hearing is timely and important,” said Robert P. George, who is the chairman of the religious freedom commission and a professor at Princeton University. “Religious freedom remains under serious assault across much of the world.”
During a May 22 hearing before the House congressional panel overseeing global human rights issues, George explained that this “pivotal human right is central to U.S. history, affirmed by international treaties and obligations, and a practical necessity crucial to the security of the United States and the world.”
He stressed that “we need our government to pay attention to the violations and abuses going on abroad.”
The hearing was chaired by U.S. Congressman Chris Smith (R- N.J.), who stated that religious freedom is an area of emphasis for the U.S. “because of its foundational role in the life of a free and democratic nation.”
“Religious freedom is a constant reminder to governments that their power is limited, that governments do not create rights but merely recognize them, and that a man or woman’s first duty is to his or her well-formed conscience,” the congressman said.
In his testimony, George applauded U.S. President Barack Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, which defended the value of religious freedom in American foreign policy.
He urged the U.S .government to put these ideals into practice, keeping “the plight of persecuted persons at the forefront of foreign policy,” and never allowing it to “fall out of view” behind other policy concerns.
George spoke of the plight of people around the world who are “either victimized by their own governments” or face mob violence for their religious beliefs.
Pointing to the 2014 assessment by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, he recommended that the U.S. State Department re-designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan as “Countries of Particular Concern,” or “CPCs” in its annual report. He also asked that the department add Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to that list.
He specifically highlighted the religious freedom violations occurring in Pakistan, “the worst religious freedom environment for a country not designated as a CPC,” as well as Syria, where “horrible and tragic” violence has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands since 2011.
By law, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exists to counsel the State Department in the creation of its annual report and in the department's designation of CPCs. This designation enables the U.S. government to enact restrictions and sanctions on the offending nation, with the aim of improving religious freedom conditions in the country.
George criticized both Republican and Democratic administrations for failing to update the list of CPCs regularly, noting that the list has been updated once in the past decade.
“Every administration needs to make these designations on a regular and, we believe, annual basis,” he stressed.
Designating Countries of Particular Concern does have an impact, George said, pointing to Vietnam as an example of a nation whose treatment of religious minorities has improved after being designated as a CPC and worsened when removed from the list.
This designation can also inspire people in a nation and “can lift the spirits and encourage those human rights activists” where religious freedom and human rights more broadly are threatened, he counseled.
In addition, George recommended some revisions of U.S. law governing international religious freedom, in order to better address threats occurring in local governments or propagated by non-state actors such as Boko Haram or al-Qaeda.
These changes to the International Religious Freedom Act would be a “minor, limited adjustment to bring the law in line with the world,” he said.