US religious freedom commissioners urge foreign policy action

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project Dec 6, 2012. Credit: Michelle Bauman/CNA.
Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project Dec 6, 2012. Credit: Michelle Bauman/CNA.

.- Leaders of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say that religious liberty is an “essential element” of human dignity and its protection deserves prominence in U.S. foreign policy.

“Since America's founding, the country has honored this form of liberty,” Robert P. George, the newly elected commission chair, and commission vice-chair Katrina Lantos Swett, wrote in the Wall Street Journal July 26.

“Today, when religious freedom in many parts of the world is under siege, one of the aims of U.S. foreign policy should be to combat such intolerance – not just because religious freedom reduces the risk of sectarian conflict, but more fundamentally because it protects the liberty that is central to human dignity.”

The religious freedom commission monitors the state of liberty of religion, thought, conscience or belief in other countries. The commission uses as its standards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements. The commission gives independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

George, a Princeton Law School professor, is a prominent Catholic thinker who was elected to head the commission last week. Lantos Swett is the daughter of the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat dedicated to human rights and religious freedom. 

Both said in the Wall Street Journal that religious liberty means there should be a “heavy presumption” against coercing others to act against their religious duties.

“This is a presumption that can be overridden only when necessary to achieve an essential public interest and when no less-restrictive alternative exists,” they said. “Because the freedom to live according to one's beliefs is so integral to human flourishing, the full protections of religious liberty must extend to all – even to those whose answers to the deepest questions reject belief in the transcendent.”

Compulsion on religious matters can only produce outward conformity, not actual conviction, the commissioners added.

“It is therefore essential that religious freedom include the right to change one’s beliefs and religious affiliation. It also includes the right to witness to one’s beliefs in public as well as private, and to act – while respecting the equal right of others to do the same – on one’s religiously inspired convictions in carrying out the duties of citizenship.”

Citing John Henry Cardinal Newman, the prominent 19th century convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, they said conscience has both rights and duties. Honoring the rights of conscience honors the freedom of people to fulfill these duties, they said.

They criticized the idea that religious freedom is merely a “sensible social compromise” in which people agree to respect others’ freedom to avoid civil strife. They said there is a “deep ground of principle” that is the basis for the right to religious liberty

“To respect fundamental human rights is to favor and honor the person who is protected by those rights – including the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion,” the commissioners said.

Respect for others’ religious freedom allows others to address the “deepest questions of human existence and meaning” and to live authentically through “fulfilling what they conscientiously believe to be their religious and moral duties.”

George and Lantos Swett did not specify religious freedom violations in their essay. However, the commission’s latest report, released in April 2013, designated 15 “countries of particular concern” for their “particularly severe” mistreatment of certain religious communities and other communities of belief. Such mistreatment includes torture, prolonged imprisonment without charges, and disappearances.

When approved by the U.S. State Department, the designation requires official presidential action. The designation can have consequences for the country’s relations with the U.S., including economic sanctions. Official designations can be heavily contested due to political pressure and other concerns.

The State Department and the religious freedom commission both named Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as “countries of particular concern.”

However, the commission had a longer list, adding Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam as tier one “countries of particular concern.” It also listed a second tier of such countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos and Russia.

Tags: Religious freedom