Monday, February 22, 2010

"Freedom of Worship" Not Enough

In his Cairo speech in June of 2009, President Obama gave religious freedom a place of heightened importance in his administration’s agenda. His speech both emphasized the importance of religious freedom when considering overall human dignity and human rights, as well as acknowledged the fact that good diplomacy must take religion into consideration as a fundamental component of international engagement. Both were tremendous steps forward in how this nation engages a world facing encroaching religious fundamentalism and ever-receding religious freedom.

Why then, is his administration shrinking from a robust understanding of religious freedom in its rhetoric of late?

Recently, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been caught using the phrase “freedom of worship” in prominent speeches, rather than the “freedom of religion” the President called for in Cairo.

If the swap-out occurred only once or twice, one might appropriately conclude it was merely a rhetorical accident. However, both the President and his Secretary of State have now replaced “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship” too many times to seem inadvertent.

Friday, February 19, 2010

USCIRF Criticized for Alleged Bias

Allegations of religious bias are being leveled against a federal body responsible for monitoring international religious freedom. 

Some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say that behind the scenes, the agency charged with advising the president and Congress is rife with ideology, tribalism, and commissioners focusing on pet projects often based on their own religious background. In particular, critics see an anti-Muslim bias – a charge denied by its chairman, Leonard Leo.
"I don't know of any other organization who defends as many Muslims in the world as we do," said Leo, appointed by George W. Bush in 2007.

Nevertheless, the commission was hit this fall with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, who alleges her contract was canceled because of her Muslim faith and her affiliation with a Muslim advocacy group.

Rumors about infighting and ineffectiveness have swirled for years around the commission, created by Congress in 1998 as part of the International Religious Freedom Act. The legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, was championed primarily by Christian groups, along with people of Jewish, Baha'i and other faiths, to get the government to pay more attention to religious persecution overseas and be an advocate for religious freedom in its foreign policy.

The commission's nine members, who are appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties, include two Catholics, two evangelical Protestants, one Southern Baptist, one Orthodox Christian, one Jew and one Muslim, with one vacancy. Its $4.3 million budget is used to research religious discrimination abroad, take fact-finding trips, hold public hearings, write an annual report, make policy recommendations and put out press releases.

Critics say the commission has disproportionately focused its efforts on the persecution of Christians while too often ignoring other religious communities and downplaying their claims of persecution.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Growing Russian Orthodox Power: Ominous?

Priests serving with military units, religious classes in public schools, even blessings at national hockey games — this is the face of the new Russian Orthodox Church.

Following years of steady post-communism revival, the church saw an explosive growth in its activities and state role last year. Now critics warn that the growth is coming at the expense of religious freedom in the country, with many faiths under attack.

In an annual report on religious freedom released in late January, the Moscow-based Liberty of Conscience Institute said the relationship between the church and the state had become “symbiotic,” violating the constitution and leading to widespread discrimination against religious minorities.

In the latest move, Russia’s top court in December upheld a ruling banning a regional branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group has long faced scrutiny in Russia.

More widespread, the report warned, was discrimination against some of Russia’s larger minorities — Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. With Russian Orthodoxy, these are the country’s four recognized religions.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Setback for Religious Freedom in U.S. Military

The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has erected a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions.

But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there.

"We've been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback," said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation which often has tangled with the academy over such issues.

Although he credits the academy's superintendent, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, with an improved climate of religious tolerance, Weinstein criticized other academy officials as trivializing the incident, which he said was not revealed to cadets.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Kyrgyzstan restricts religious freedom

Less than five years after Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Tulip Revolution’ raised hopes that the central Asian nation would embrace greater democratic reforms, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has signed a law restricting the religious freedom of communities with fewer than 200 members. The law bans the participation of children in these communities and forbids members to distribute religious literature.

The new law, which has been condemned by local Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Hare Krishnas, and Baha’i community members, was passed with the support of the Muslim community and the Russian Orthodox Church.

75% of residents of Muslims, while 20% are Russian Orthodox. Only 1,000 of Kyrgyzstan’s residents are Catholics; Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, SJ, Apostolic Administrator of Kyrgyzstan, says that the restrictions “do not affect the small Catholic Church in the country, which continues her path, in pastoral care of the faithful, in social work, and in humanitarian assistance.