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Office politics

"Office politics" Continued...

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

The debate over an ambassador isn't just office politics. The United States is in the midst of two projects to establish democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq-countries where religion is woven into the fabric of daily life and sectarianism has exacerbated security problems. President Obama seems to recognize this. In his Cairo speech last year, he named seven issues that the Arab world must confront: One was religious freedom. "People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul," he said. "This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it's being challenged in many different ways."

After the Cairo speech, the National Security Council and State Department formed various working groups to address issues from the speech-but no group formed on religious freedom.

The watchdog over the State Department on these issues, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has in the past seen its main task as issuing reports on violators of religious freedom. Theoretically the State Department takes the recommendations of the commission, which is an independent government agency, into account when it releases its list of "countries of particular concern" each year-but while the commission has added five countries to its list over the last three years, the State Department hasn't added any.

"What they have really failed to do is bring fire on the State Department in a constructive way," Farr said of the commission. USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said the commission has to balance building relationships with administration officials in order to advise them and condemning the administration's lapses on religious freedom. But he does condemn the Obama administration's lack of action. "Talk is cheap," Leo said, insisting that the administration needs to impose sanctions on violators of religious freedom from China to Iran. The government has a patchwork response to religious freedom violations, often avoiding sanctions in countries that are political allies. "It sends the signal that freedom of religion is a stepchild," Leo said.

For example, Secretary Clinton has avoided discussing human-rights issues in China, much less religious liberty-though China is on the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern." The agency has other competing interests that have superseded religious freedom concerns: trade, regulating emissions, currency, and all the American debt the Chinese government owns.

But all of those economic and security interests would be bolstered by advances in religious freedom, advocates say. "There are so many areas in our foreign policy where religious freedom ought to be part of the wallpaper," said Farr.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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