WASHINGTON-At a press conference Thursday in a building two blocks from the White House, members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released their annual report, which details religious freedom violators around the world. The report also slams the Obama administration for its inattention to the issue.
"The U.S. government must do more," said Leonard Leo, chair of the commission, a government-funded but independent group.
In the report, the commission wrote that attention to religious freedom "seems to shrink year after year for the White House and the State Department. This is a deepening problem despite the fact that religious freedom should be increasingly more important as one of the core considerations in foreign policy and national security." Leo added that the commission has had equal criticism for the Bush and Clinton administrations, neither of which, he said, lavished attention on this problem.
The commission criticized the Obama administration for not naming an ambassador at large for religious freedom, an appointment that would provide a leader on the issue at the State Department. President Obama has already named individuals to other religious positions at the agency: the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, the special representative to Muslim communities, and the special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The commission also criticized the administration's use of the phrase "freedom of worship" in speeches, which it says is too narrow a term. (The USCIRF's full report can be read here.)
But the commission has made progress in recent months in grabbing the administration's attention. Commissioners have had meetings with high-level State Department officials, as well as with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"In a way there has been an open door," Leo said. "But as with previous administrations, foreign policy and national security are a mix of a lot of competing interests. . . . That's why to some extent there needs to be a cultural or intellectual shift."
Another commissioner, Richard Land, noted that the government's inattention to religious freedom in the first place was "the reason that the International Freedom Act was passed," the legislation that created the USCIRF. But in the administrations since the 1998 act passed, Land pointed out that no one has addressed religious freedom "in a sense that would be adequate."
Land also sounded a hopeful note, explaining one of the "unintended consequences" of the religious freedom legislation: The law requires embassies to submit reports on religious freedom in their respective countries, a task typically handled by junior staffers in the State Department. Since the legislation was created 12 years ago, those junior staffers, now more aware of the religious freedom issue, have risen in rank.
"It's changing the culture of the State Department," Land said.
The commission didn't make any changes to its list of countries of particular concern, the designation of the worst violators of religious freedom. The commission does plan to investigate recent events in Morocco, where Christians have been targeted and expelled from the country. (See "What changed?" April 24, 2010.) That country is not listed in this year's report.