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How The U.S. Strikes A Delicate Religious Freedom Balance Around The World

Afghan women at a polling location during 2010 parliamentary elections.
UK Ministry of Defense
/
Open Governement License
Afghan women at a polling location during 2010 parliamentary elections.

In 1998, President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which codified religious freedom as an official foreign policy goal of the United States, and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF.

Elizabeth Cassidy is USCIRF’s acting co-director of policy and research, and told KGOU’s World Views the organization monitors overseas religious conditions and makes policy recommendations to the U.S. government. The nearly 20-year-old act was prompted by grassroots movements from different civil society groups concerned about governments perpetrating, or sometimes just tolerating, religious freedom violations. She says in many countries, blasphemy laws – making insulting religion or contradicting certain principles a criminal offense – are some of the main violations.

“In some places, these laws are quite severe. Pakistan’s are the worst, where it’s a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty if you’re convicted of blasphemy,” Cassidy said. “And currently USCIRF is aware of nearly 40 people in prison in Pakistan, either life sentences or under the death sentence.”

USCIRF designates what it calls “Countries of Particular Concern” where religious freedom isn’t respected and violations of U.S. standards occur. In these countries – like China, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and several others – certain patterns emerge.

“One type of example is authoritarian governments who are just sort-of trying to control every aspect of their citizens' lives, including religious practice. So that would be your Eritrea, your China, North Korea - countries like that,” Cassidy said. “Another common pattern of violations is where the country has a theocratic government, so they're enforcing a religion or an interpretation of a religion. And so that leads to religious freedom violations against people either who aren't of that religion, or who, for whatever reason are from a minority sect of that religion, or disagree with certain premises.”

But religious freedom violations aren’t confined to the Global South. Cassidy says religious liberty is about more than just the freedom to worship, it also includes the right to show religious affiliation and beliefs in public.

“If it’s about individual religious freedom, women in Saudi Arabia should have the right to choose not to fully cover themselves, just as women in France should be able to wear a headscarf, which right now they can’t do in schools. And now they actually can’t wear the full face veil anywhere in public.”

Cassidy says Saudi Arabia is an interesting example, since it’s a strong U.S. ally. And that means negotiating differences in interpretations of religious freedom and tolerance can be a slippery slope. Cassidy says the U.S. and Saudi Arabia negotiated a Confirmation of Policies in 2004 where the Saudi government would take steps to improve the religious freedom of its citizens, including reining in raids by law enforcement on people who didn’t practice Islam.

“In Saudi Arabia, there are no places of worship  of non-Muslim faiths. So if you’re a Christian expatriate worker there, there’s no church you can go to,” Cassidy said. “So Christian expatriate workers worship in homes. Sometimes this is allowed to go on, but other times the police find out about it and they come and raid. And so there was an agreement to step back from that, and sort-of let this go on.”

In a broader sense, Cassidy says issues of religious freedom go hand-in-hand with good governance.

“You're not going to have full religious freedom unless it's a society that also protects freedom of expression, freedom of assembly,” Cassidy said. “Unless you have some kind of credible and judicial system where if there are attacks against people based on their religion, or crimes against people by their religion, there's a fair legal process to prosecute people who are violating the law. All of those things are tied together.”

Cassidy says she’s optimistic though, since she think many countries are starting to realize that severe religious freedom violations also produce radical extremism and large refugee populations.

“More countries have gotten engaged on these issues, and there’s a growing movement of both governments consulting with each other and working together,” Cassidy said.

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Elizabeth Cassidy, welcome to World Views.

ELIZABETH CASSIDY: Thanks so much for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, Elizabeth, you work at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF, so tell us a little bit about that and the international religious freedom issues that you deal with.

CASSIDY: Sure, happy to do that. So USCIRF is a U.S. government advisory body that was created in the late 1990s by Congress in something called the International Religious Freedom Act. IRFA is how the statute has now become known. So our mandate is to monitor religious freedom conditions overseas and make policy recommendations to the U.S. government, but we're advisory, so we don't speak for the administration, we speak for ourselves.

GRILLOT: So the Religious Freedom Act that was created in the 1990s, what prompted that? Because we think of this country as being very focused on religious freedom for many, many years. So what happened then?

CASSIDY: Well, what prompted it then was a focus on what was happening on religious freedom internationally. So the focus of the act is for the U.S. to promote religious freedom internationally and condemn religious freedom violations in other countries. And what really prompted it in the '90s was a lot of the violations that were going on overseas at that time, especially in places like China and Sudan. And so it really started as a grassroots movement with concern from different civil society groups, and in large part Christian groups, that were very concerned about the persecution of Christians.

GRILLOT: But you also focus on blasphemy laws, and other types of ways in which religious freedom is constrained?

CASSIDY: Yeah, definitely, I mean the law tells us to look at what governments are doing or not doing. So basically government perpetration or toleration of religious freedom violations. And one of the main governmental violations that we see, or in many countries one of the main government violations is through blasphemy laws. Countries where they have laws on the books that say that insulting religion, or contradicting certain religious principles is a criminal offense. And in some places, these laws are quite severe. Pakistan's are the worst, where it's a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty if you're convicted of blasphemy. And currently USCIRF is aware of nearly 40 people in prison in Pakistan, either life sentences or under the death sentence.

GRILLOT: Well, I was going to ask you if you could give us some specific cases of, problematic cases, of where religious freedom isn't well-respected. Pakistan, obviously, in this example, but where are some others? I can think of examples in my head, but tell us.

CASSIDY: Yeah, and probably a number of them are the ones you would think of. So there's this category in the Act called "Countries of Particular Concern" for the worst violators. And U.S. government is supposed to designate countries that meet this standard every year. And so right now there are nine that the U.S. has designated, most recently in 2014. And a lot of them are the ones you would expect. Countries like China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Sudan. So those are sort-of the official, I think that was nine that I rattled through, those are sort-of the officially designated ones. There are others that my commission thinks meet that standard, but essentially they're probably...we in our report, we tend to focus on the countries with the worst problems. We usually report on about 30 countries each year. Oftentimes you can see some patterns. So one type of example is authoritarian governments who are just sort-of trying to control every aspect of their citizens' lives, including religious practice. So that would be your Eritrea, your China, North Korea - countries like that. Another common pattern of violations is where the country has a theocratic government, so they're enforcing a religion or an interpretation of a religion. And so that leads to religious freedom violations against people either who aren't of that religion, or who, for whatever reason are from a minority sect of that religion, or disagree with certain premises. And then you can also get violations arising where you have countries where even if they're not officially a religious state, their laws favor certain religious groups over others.

GRILLOT: So, just out of curiosity, where might like something like European laws that, let's say, prevent one wearing the hijab? Or something like that? Because you obviously didn't list, and we don't necessarily think of western Europe or Western countries when we think of a lack of religious freedom. But this kind-of growing pressure, particularly in places where you see a lot of refugees and migrants bringing religions from other parts of the world, and there being some real difficulties between those populations and governments trying to be responsive to that. Where does that fit in?

CASSIDY: Yeah, it's a good question. The western European countries, there's not ever been one that's met this so-called CPC Standard - Country of Particular Concern Standard. Because that really looks to egregious violations, like putting people in jail, torturing people, things like that. But just because a country doesn't meet that really bad standard doesn't mean that there might not be other religious freedom issues. And so certainly [in] western Europe there are concerns, and the U.S. State Department is part of this Act that created also my commission. They do an annual report every year on all countries on religious freedom issues. And so in the western Europe country chapters they would talk about all those things. So there are religious freedom issues. I mean, it's under the international provisions on religious freedom, it's clear that religious freedom includes more than just sort-of being able to go to your place of worship and have your church service or your mosque prayers, or whatever they may be. It does include the ability to show your religious affiliation and beliefs in public, which would include wearing religious dress. So under this interpretation, either being told that you have to wear religious dress, or being told that you can't, would both be a religious freedom issue, right? If it's about individual religious freedom, women in Saudi Arabia should have the right to choose not to fully cover themselves, just as women in France should be able to wear a headscarf, which right now they can't do in schools. And actually now they actually can't wear the full-face veil anywhere in public.

GRILLOT: So what can you do about this? I mean, what is it that you do? You say it's to provide advice to the U.S. government, but what are the options? The policy options? The tools? You mentioned Saudi Arabia in particular. They're a strong ally of ours. You go through this whole list that you mentioned. None of those are really strong allies of ours, but Saudi Arabia is. And so what kind of things can we even do to try to promote religious freedom in a country like Saudi Arabia?

CASSIDY: Yeah, there are a bunch of tools, and the International Religious Freedom Act has a long list of possible actions that it thinks the U.S. should take in various situations, either with violations of religious freedom, or these what are called Particularly Severe Violations. And so the U.S. government has a lot of tools at its disposal in its relationship with any country. Everything from just discussing these issues in your interactions with foreign officials, and there's lots of time the U.S. spends thinking about that. What issues are going to be raised, who's going to raise them, especially when you get to the level of the president is going to have a meeting with Saudi Arabia, and what are the issues that are going to be raised? But U.S. and Saudi officials are talking with each other at all different levels of relationship. But then also keep in mind there are different exchanges and programs and things that the U.S. government can do that can promote religious freedom. They're then more harsher actions that the U.S. can take. One of them is just the designation. No country likes to be publicly put on a list by another country that says, 'We view you as a severe religious freedom violator.' And so that does get a lot of countries' attention. And then the fact of Saudi Arabia, when they were put on that list in 2004, the U.S. negotiated with them what's called a Confirmation of Policies, where the Saudi government agreed that it was going to take certain steps to try to improve the religious freedom situation in the country. And the U.S. has done that in some other instances, Vietnam, for example, which was designated as a CPC at some point. So the U.S. does have some ability to influence things. In the case of Saudi, it had to do with the Saudis agreeing that they were going to rein in the religious police in terms of their raids that they had been conducting on private worship. In Saudi Arabia, there are no places of worship of non-Muslim faiths. So if you're a Christian expatriate worker there, there's no church you can go to. So Christian expatriate workers worship in homes. Sometimes this is allowed to go on, but other times the police find out about it and they come and raid. And so there was an agreement to sort-of step back from that, and sort-of let this go on. And there were other agreements about reining in the religious police, and putting some more oversight over them. And then also some agreements relating to making some changes in textbooks. So there are things that the U.S. can influence, but in a lot of these countries, especially the most severe, these restrictions are really entrenched in their entire legal and governing systems. So changing that whole thing is not going to happen right away, or any time soon. So the U.S. is sort-of having to look at what can we do? In the case of Vietnam, for example, it was negotiating releasing some prisoners and making some changes in their laws that govern the registration of religious organizations. So you're looking for the improvements that you can realistically have made.

GRILLOT: Well, I was going to ask about the connection between this issue - religious freedom and other issues such as good governance, having solid governmental practices and institutions that protect a whole range of things like freedom of the press and other types of civil liberties that we hold very dear in this country. So I would imagine this is just kind of one part of that, but highly affected by these other issues. So I would imagine you probably work very closely with other agencies and other organizations like yours' that perhaps focus on those other aspects as well?

CASSIDY: Absolutely. These things are all tied together, both in the sense that religious freedom is part of a whole group of rights that sort-of go together, essentially. You're not going to have full religious freedom unless it's a society that also protects freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. Unless you have some kind of credible and judicial system where if there are attacks against people based on their religion, or crimes against people by their religion, there's a fair legal process to prosecute people who are violating the law. All of those things are tied together. And you can see that on the converse side when you look at the countries that have the worst problems, they're also the same countries that show up on all the other lists of the worst human rights violators. If you look at the U.S.'s religious freedom list, and then you look at the countries that are in the worst categories on Freedom House's "Freedom and the World," and on the indexes of press freedom and transparency international, the indexes of corruption and government transparency and all of that. These things are all tied together.

GRILLOT: They're all in the same category. They're all in the same group.

CASSIDY: Exactly.

GRILLOT: Well, so lastly then, Elizabeth, how optimistic are you? Have you seen a lot of positive changes along these lines? Because those of us perhaps who don't study this issue, and are just kind of watching the news and seeing that there is a lot of religious strife out there, there's a lot of concern about tolerance and treatment of peoples because of their religious beliefs. Should we be optimistic about it? Are you seeing moves in the right direction?

CASSIDY: I think there are things to be optimistic about. Like you say, some days it's hard to be optimistic. I think a lot of what gets covered in the news is the bad news, the worst stuff, the violence. And there certainly is way too much of that going around in the news these days. So the bad news tends to get covered. There's not so much coverage of the good things that are going on in places. And one of the great things about our job is when we get to travel to some of these countries and meet with government officials and religious leaders and civil society activists and all kinds of people in various countries. And especially in meeting with religious communities and civil society activists, you really learn how many people there are in different countries working themselves on these issues. Not only on the human rights aspects of the issues, but also on the sort-of interfaith tolerance and engagement aspects of the issues. And I think a lot of that is where real good change is going on. It just doesn't tend to make the top story on CNN or the sort-of front pages of the U.S. papers. But it does give one hope there. And one other thing that's been really reassuring, especially in the past five or so years, is more and more countries....the U.S. was very early in this trend of focusing on international religious freedom in its human rights policy and its foreign policy. I mean, the International Religious Freedom Act was 1998, and still is the only sort-of law in any country that addresses these issues. But more and more countries have come to realize the importance of religious freedom, and how it relates to a lot of these other rights and these societal goods of when you look at countries, when you have a country with these really severe religious freedom violations, you also tend to see that these are unstable. They're countries that are producing extremism and refugee flows and all of these things. And how this all tied together, and people are sort-of starting to realize, wow, this is one thing we really need to improve. So more and more countries have gotten engaged on these issues, and there's a growing movement of both governments sort-of consulting with each other and working together, and also parliamentarians. I was just in a conference in New York a couple weekends ago that was the second meeting of a new coalition, an international coalition of parliamentarians interested in freedom of religion or belief. From all over the world, there were 100 parliamentarians from about 50 countries. So I think that's really a hopeful sign.

GRILLOT: Well that's great. That's good to end on a positive note. Thank you so much Elizabeth for being here today, and telling us a little something about religious freedom. Thank you.

CASSIDY: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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