Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released the 2010 mid-year Report on International Religious Freedom on September 13. Following her remarks, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook took questions.
The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom covers the legal status of religious freedom in more than 190 countries and territories around the world. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 also mandates the designation of Countries of Particular Concern. Countries of Particular Concern are governments that have engaged in, or tolerated, systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.
In her remarks, Secretary Clinton said:
“…The protection of religious freedom is a fundamental concern of the United States going back to the earliest days of our republic, and it remains so today.
“As we look around the world, in fact, we see many countries where governments deny their people the most fundamental human rights: the right to believe according to their own conscience — including the freedom to not believe or not follow the religion favored by their government; the right to practice their religion freely, without risking discrimination, arrest, or violence; and the right to educate their children in their own religious traditions; and the freedom to express their beliefs.
“In Iran, authorities continue to repress Sufi Muslims, evangelical Christians, Jews, Bahais, Sunnis, Ahmadis, and others who do not share the government’s religious views. In China, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, ‘house church’ Christians all suffer from government attempts to restrict their religious practice. In Eritrea last year, a 43-year-old evangelical Christian died in prison; he was reportedly tortured for 18 months and denied treatment for malaria because he refused to renounce his faith.
“Of course, threats to the free exercise of conscience and religion do not always come directly from governments. Just yesterday, we heard reports that gunmen masquerading as security officers waylaid a bus of Shia pilgrims traveling throughout western Iraq. The women were abandoned by the side of the road, but the 22 men were shot, and their bodies left in the middle of the desert. This sort of hateful, senseless violence has no aim other than to undermine the fabric of peaceful society.
“In the Middle East and North Africa, the transitions to democracy have inspired the world, but they have also exposed ethnic and religious minorities to new dangers. People have been killed by their own neighbors because of their ethnicity or their faith. In other places, we’ve seen governments stand by while sectarian violence, inflamed by religious animosities, tears communities apart.
“Now, the people of the region have taken exciting first steps toward democracy — but if they hope to consolidate their gains, they cannot trade one form of repression for another.
“Shining a spotlight on violations of religious freedom around the world, such as those I just mentioned, is one of our goals in releasing this report.
“We also call attention to some of the steps being taken to improve religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. One of those is UN Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which was introduced by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and adopted by consensus in March. It calls on all states to take concrete action against religious bigotry through tolerance, education, government outreach, service projects, and interfaith dialogue. And we worked very hard with a number of nations and with the OIC to pass this resolution, and we will be working with our OIC and European counterparts on implementing it. And Ambassador Johnson Cook is leading our efforts.
“We have also seen Turkey take serious steps to improve the climate for religious tolerance. The Turkish Government issued a decree in August that invited non-Muslims to reclaim churches and synagogues that were confiscated 75 years ago. I applaud Prime Minister Erdogan’s very important commitment to doing so. Turkey also now allows women to wear headscarves at universities, which means female students no longer have to choose between their religion and their education.
“Third, as we release this report, we reaffirm the role that religious freedom and tolerance play in building stable and harmonious societies. Hatred and intolerance are destabilizing. When governments crack down on religious expression, when politicians or public figures try to use religion as a wedge issue, or when societies fail to take steps to denounce religious bigotry and curb discrimination based on religious identity, they embolden extremists and fuel sectarian strife.
“And the reverse is also true: When governments respect religious freedom, when they work with civil society to promote mutual respect, or when they prosecute acts of violence against members of religious minorities, they can help turn down the temperature. They can foster a public aversion to hateful speech without compromising the right to free expression. And in doing so, they create a climate of tolerance that helps make a country more stable, more secure, and more prosperous.
“So the United States Government will continue our efforts to support religious freedom. We are engaging with faith groups to address the issues that affect them. Our embassies encourage inter-faith dialogue. And we will speak out against efforts to curtail religious freedom.
“Because it is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual. People who have a voice in how they are governed — no matter what their identity or ethnicity or religion — are more likely to have a stake in both their government’s and their society’s success. That is good for stability, for American national security, and for global security.”