The U.S. must recognize all causes of religious freedom abuses around the world — including religious motivations where they exist, experts told members of Congress Tuesday. “This is a case that we make again and again and again, and that is that many of our most serious foreign policy and defense challenges have a key religious component to that, and we cannot hope to solve these problems if we do not address the religious dimension to these crises,” said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “Too often in the foreign ministries, our State Department and the other foreign ministries prefer other explanations that seem somehow more rational to them, but the world is as it is, and so we cannot succeed without addressing these religious freedoms,” she added in an interview with CNA. It is “very important to not fall into the trap of thinking religious freedom abuses are always the result of, say, poverty. Because they’re not,” stressed Princeton University law professor Robert George, who chairs the commission, an independent government watchdog that advises the State Department. George testified before the House Global Human Rights subcommittee on Oct. 27, along with the U.S. Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, on the “global crisis of religious freedom.” “International religious freedom is in jeopardy,” George told CNA, noting that 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where freedom of religion is restricted by the government or is threatened by social unrest. The abuses “are legion,” he said. He pointed to problems in North Korea, an “Atheist-Marxist” Chinese government’s crackdown on dissidents, a “theocracy” in Iran persecuting those who don’t believe “their particular interpretation of Shia Islam,” abuses in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and non-state actors committing grave human rights abuses in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria. “It’s a bleak situation, and so that means we need to redouble our efforts and rededicate ourselves to religious freedom,” he continued. When asked if the global situation has improved in the last year, Swett answered bluntly, “No.” The world is “on fire” with abuses of religious freedom, she insisted. Saperstein admitted to “daunting, alarming, and growing challenges to religious freedom around the world” in his testimony, but maintained that the State Department is improving its response in promoting religious freedom abroad since he took over his ambassador position in 2014. As an example, he pointed to the appointment of Knox Thames as the State Department’s new Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia. “It used to be a fight to talk with the government” over the importance of global religious freedom, Saperstein said, but added that he is “heartened to find” that is no longer the case. “Is it still clumsy for many people? Yes. These are very hard issues to deal with in an effective manner,” he acknowledged of the agency’s efforts to promote global religious freedom. But George said there is still more work to be done in improving how the U.S. responds to global abuses of religious freedom. For instance, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends yearly that the State Department designate certain countries as “countries of particular concern,” (CPCs) or countries where severe and ongoing abuses of religious freedom are taking place and the government is supporting them or not stopping them. These designations carry possible consequences like economic sanctions or a bilateral agreement with the governments of those countries. However, the State Department does not always act on USCIRF's recommendations. The process “loses credibility” if “designations are erratic”, which they have been, George claimed, adding that the designations should be “made annually” by the State Department. He recommended Congress pass legislation that requires annual CPC designations by the State Department. In his testimony, Saperstein promised the process would improve. “I am pushing very hard to revamp the way that we do this,” he said. “I do not think that we’re going to have this problem in the future.”
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