On religious liberty, Obama administration still 'falling short,' leading authority says

Thomas Farr, Director of the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom project. Credit: Georgetown University
Thomas Farr, Director of the Berkley Center's Religious Freedom project. Credit: Georgetown University


Last week’s state visit by China’s President Hu Jintao again underscored the Obama Administration’s reluctance to defend human rights and religious freedom, according to a leading authority.

“The real issue is not what any administration says, or even what the President says, as important as his words are. What is critical is whether — and how — a given administration backs up its words with consistent and effective policies,” said Thomas Farr, a former diplomat who heads the Religious Freedom project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

“This is where the Obama administration is falling short, especially on religious freedom,” he said.

Farr has been a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s handling of human rights and religious freedom issues.

And in the wake of Hu’s Jan. 18-22 state visit, he expressed skepticism about the Administration’s claims to have taken a tougher line in private talks with Hu.

“Whatever the President told Mr. Hu, the latter doubtless knows that there will be no policy implications, except for the annual rhetorical condemnation in the State Department's designations,” Farr told CNA in an e-mail Jan. 25.

He noted that China every year winds up on the State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” for its “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

“The designations result from China's persecution of religious dissenters, including Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, evangelical Protestants, or Roman Catholics,” he explained.

Despite these “rhetorical condemnations of China,” Farr says the Administration has done little to back up its words with concrete actions, such as economic sanctions.

Farr was the first head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom,  established by Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1998. He served under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

The office is in charge of monitoring religious liberty issues worldwide and making annual reports to Congress on “countries of particular concern.”

Farr noted that two years into his administration, President Barack Obama has yet to fill the post of ambassador at large for religious freedom, a diplomatic position created by Congress in 1998.

Although President Obama nominated pastor Suzan Johnson Cook last June, her nomination hit a bureaucratic snag and expired in Congress. The president has yet to propose a new nominee.

For Farr, the vacancy speaks volumes about the Administration’s commitment to religious freedom.

And he says the Administration’s seeming lack of interest is not lost on countries like China that routinely violate religious rights.

For instance, he said, the Chinese president is likely aware that “halfway through the Obama presidency, the administration has not even bothered to put into place the senior official responsible for promoting religious freedom in China and elsewhere.”

Farr urged an approach to China that combines “public statements and quiet policy steps.”

He recommended that the U.S. encourage President Hu to support a joint U.S.-China working group on religious freedom that would meet periodically in both countries.

He also recommended that the U.S. encourage China’s Institute on World Religions, a branch of the country’s Academy of Social Sciences, to “develop a program on the study of religious freedom.”

Such steps, Farr said, “can have real impact over time by helping the Chinese deepen their understanding of the value of religious freedom to China’s own interests — including social harmony, broader and more sustained economic growth, political stability, and undermining religious extremism.”

Farr has suggested previously that the Obama Administration’s outreach to Muslim nations — many of which are on the State Dept.’s list of egregious violators of religious freedom — has made it reluctant to pursue these issues.

But Farr believes that these issues are crucial to U.S. security and foreign policy concerns. That is the subject of his 2008 book "World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security.”

Recently his Berkeley Center at Georgetown received a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a three-year international study a broad range of religious freedom issues, including the relationship of religion to questions of democracy, economic and social development, and peace.

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