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New State Department office created to engage with faith-based groups

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The creation of the Office for Engagement with Faith-Based Communities at the State Department, announced Aug. 7, follows long-standing criticism that U.S. diplomacy has been too separated from the realities of the importance of religion.

In remarks at the State Department in announcing the establishment of the office, Secretary of State John Kerry said that after discussing at length the global impact of religion with leaders from around the world who are involved in interfaith efforts, it's time to do more than "just to talk about a better dialogue. I think we have to stand up and deliver one."

"We need to recognize that in a world where people of all faiths are migrating and mingling like never before, where we are this global community ... we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril," Kerry said.

More than a dozen federal agencies, ranging from the Department of Education to Homeland Security and the Corporation for National and Community Service, have offices intended to help form partnerships between the agency and faith-based and neighborhood organizations.

The State Department has long been criticized, for instance by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for inadequately educating personnel about the range and depth of religious issues and for not engaging more with religious entities.A white paper produced by the State Department-created Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group last fall warned that ignoring or minimizing the important role religion plays "because we are uncomfortable with them, or do not have time or interest to understand them in context, is no longer an option for U.S. policy."

Kerry also announced that the office would be headed by Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary. Casey holds degrees that include a master of divinity, a master of public administration and a doctor of theology, all from Harvard University. He is the author of "The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960," and served as a consultant to the Project on Religion and Post-Conflict Resolution at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kerry said engagement — which he described as a two-way street — is the goal of the office. "Our job at the State Department is not just to proclaim or to stand up and pontificate about the things that we want. We have to listen to people about the things that they want."

Casey recalled that several years ago, he and Kerry "started a conversation about the rich, diverse, and complicated public implications of religious belief and practice. At that time, some were claiming that religion poisons everything, while others were saying that religion would save and solve everything. You knew, however, that the reality was somewhere in between."

He said that he admired Kerry's "willingness to defy the conventional wisdom that dictated religion was a purely private, personal choice, and thus communities bounded by faith must be entirely left outside of discussions of policy.""Engaging these communities in the context of policy has always struck me as being a matter of very great and deep importance."

For example, said Casey, just as religious leaders and faith communities shape their environments, they also have influence on and can affect foreign policy concerns."It's essential for the United States to understand them and to bring them into our diplomacy and development efforts," said Casey.

The new office is not intended to "create a new silo that addresses religion in an isolated manner," Casey said. "Rather we are seeking to multiply the engagement with religion that already exists across the bureaus and offices of this great organization."

Melissa Rogers, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, said the office will help encourage engagement with religious and other community actors around three objectives. Those include: promoting sustainable development and more effective humanitarian response; advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom; and "preventing, mitigating, and resolving violent conflict to enhance local and regional stability and security.

"She said all diplomatic and consular posts would receive "guidance and continuing assistance" on those issues.

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