By Rick Plasterer
The global situation for religious freedom is deteriorating greater than commonly understood, especially in the Middle East, according to speakers at a Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America sponsored conference on December 5. The event particularly looked at the situation of Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan in light of a fact-finding trip of American religious leaders there on November 4-10.
IRD board member Thomas Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, spoke regarding the global religious freedom situation, and in particular, the role of the Obama Administration in it. The status of religious freedom worldwide is deteriorating, Farr said, and the Middle East is the “center of the storm.” The Obama Administration has “by and large not taken” the opportunity to advance religious freedom in the Middle East. According to statistics from the Pew Research Center, 75% of the world’s population lives in countries where restrictions on religious freedom are “high.” Of the top 18 countries that severely restrict religious freedom, 12 are Muslim majority nations. Farr said that Christians must “stand with their co-religionists” in countries where they are persecuted. The “religious group that is targeted the most [for persecution] is Christians,” Farr said. Muslims are the second most persecuted group, he indicated. The persecution of Christians hurts the wider world, because “Christians have made enormous contributions to their societies.” Among the reasons Farr gave to support religious freedom are:
- Moral imperative – people are entitled to the free exercise of their religion.
- American interest – as experience has shown, democracy will not happen without religious freedom.
- Religious freedom is a powerful “tool” in reducing extremism and terrorism.
Farr said that despite the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established an office of Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, religious freedom has not been a high priority for American foreign policy. Concern with religious freedom is not a “career enhancing” move within “American diplomatic service.” The U.S. has “compartmentalized” religious freedom, and religious freedom tends to be seen as a “humanitarian” issue. The Ambassador at Large has been placed under a lower ranking official at the State Department, not reporting directly to the Secretary of State, and Congress has never held any hearings pursuant to the implementation of the International Religious Freedom Act.