State Department Purges Religious Freedom Section from Its Human Rights Reports

Pete Winn | June 7, 2012 | 10:08pm EDT
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(AP photo)

( - The U.S. State Department removed the sections covering religious freedom from the Country Reports on Human Rights that it released on May 24, three months past the statutory deadline Congress set for the release of these reports.

The new human rights reports--purged of the sections that discuss the status of religious freedom in each of the countries covered--are also the human rights reports that include the period that covered the Arab Spring and its aftermath.

Thus, the reports do not provide in-depth coverage of what has happened to Christians and other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East that saw the rise of revolutionary movements in 2011 in which Islamist forces played an instrumental role.

For the first time ever, the State Department simply eliminated the section of religious freedom in its reports covering 2011 and instead referred the public to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report – a full two years behind the times – or to the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was released last September and covers events in 2010 but not 2011.

Leonard Leo, who recently completed a term as chairman of the USCIRF, says that removing the sections on religious freedom from the State Department's Country Reports on Human Roghts is a bad idea.

Since 1998, when Congress created USCIRF, the State Department has been required to issue a separate yearly report specifically on International Religious Freedom.

But a section reporting on religious freedom has also always been included in the State Department's legally required annual country-by-country reports on human rights--that is, until now.

And this is the first year the State Department would have needed to report on the effect the Arab Spring has had on religious freedom in the Middle East--had its reports, as always before, included a section on religious freedom.

“The commission that I served on has some real concerns about that bifurcation, because the human rights reports receive a lot of attention, and to have pulled religious freedom out of it means that fewer people will obtain information about what’s going on with that particular freedom or right. So you don’t have the whole picture because they split it up now,” Leo told

Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Farr says it’s possible that the move to totally separate religious freedom from the human rights reports could simply be a bureaucratic maneuver.

But another possibility is much more likely.

“The other possibility is the Obama administration is downplaying international religious freedom,” Farr said.

Farr, who served in the State Department under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, was the first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom.

“I mean, it is important to note here that I do not know--I have no personal knowledge of the logic that went into removing religious freedom from the broader human rights report; but I also have observed during the three-and-a-half years of the Obama administration that the issue of religious freedom has been distinctly downplayed,” Farr said

Currently a visiting associate professor of religion and world affairs in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Farr directs the program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy and the Project on Religious Freedom at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown.

He told that far more resources have been allocated by the Obama administration to other human rights issues than have been directed toward religious freedom.

“(T)he ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, for example, who is the official charged by the law to lead U.S. religious freedom policy, did not even step foot into her office until two-and-a-half years were gone of a four-year administration,” he said.

“Whereas other human rights priorities of the administration, such as the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, were in place within months. So that tells you something.

“It tells me that this has never been a priority for the Obama administration, and it’s not now,” he said.

“So it seems to me plausible to at least question the removal of religious freedom from the human rights report, although, as I say, there could be other explanations, less insidious, if you will.”

Missing: Murdered Christians and the Aftermath of the Arab Spring

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The 2010 International Religious Freedom Report is notably missing some important information--the two-year old report contains no mention of the violence, murder and mayhem directed at Christians and other minorities in Muslim nations in Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

However, the less well-known 2012 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom does take note of the Arab Spring.

-- In 2011, in Egypt, Coptic Christians were among 25 people massacred during a demonstration over an Islamist attack on a church.

-- In the month of January 2012 alone, the Islamist group Boko Haram was responsible for 54 deaths in Nigeria – 42 of them Catholics killed at church on Christmas Day. In 2011, it killed more than 500 people and burned down or destroyed more than 350 churches in 10 northern states of Nigeria.

Former USCIRF Chairman Leo says the fact is the administration no longer makes the proper distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of worship.

“Going all the way back to the president’s speech in Cairo, they seem to be satisfied with Arab Spring countries and Middle Eastern countries providing freedom of worship, but not pressuring them on the broader freedom of religion.

“In Saudi Arabia, and in some of these countries, you may be able to draw curtains in your home and pray--but don’t take it outside your house. And certainly don’t imbue other aspects of your life with your religious sentiments,” Leo said.

He added: “We see in a lot of countries around the world, but particularly in the Middle East and in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that it’s not just those small non-Muslim minorities that are affected adversely by repressive policies, it’s majority Muslims as well. Muslims who don’t necessarily want to subscribe to every jot and tittle of what the state feels is the appropriate form of Islam.”

Former diplomat Farr agreed the administration hasn’t been focused on the freedom of religion in terms of foreign relations.

“As far as I know, the administration has paid very little attention to the religion-state issues, in terms of policy effort, in terms of programs on the ground,” Farr said.

“I’m not speaking of speeches, or ‘raising the issue’--which are typical State Department platitudes for trying to change the subject--but in terms of actual programs on the ground, whether we’re talking about Libya, or Tunisia, or the most important of all, Egypt, the programs on the ground designed to advance religious freedom, as far as I know, are nonexistent.”

The State Department, meanwhile, has given no indication of when -- or if -- the next International Religious Freedom Report will be released.

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