There was something about the way Hillary Clinton said it that touched a nerve.
“People are dying,” the Secretary of State said forcefully and finally – with an emphasis on the word “dying” that can only be born of outrage.
She was talking about Syria and the brutal repression by embattled President Bashar al-Assad against a popular uprising – an uprising that Clinton and President Obama hope leads to the toppling of the Assad regime.
The comment came during a June 13 press conference at the State Department as Clinton stood at a podium next to the Indian foreign minister, answering a hand-full of questions from an international press corps.
There she was, a prominent member of the administration using the bully pulpit on behalf of human rights – in this case, the right of people not to be killed wantonly for their political beliefs.
She has said the same thing about Syria and Assad at other State Department news conferences that I have attended.
It was the same idea she expressed on May 24, when she finally released – albeit three months late -- the 2011 Human Rights Report, a yearly report that documents the state of human rights and human rights abuses in the nations of the world.
OK, I get it. People are dying. Scores of people are being killed every few days – some pro-Assad, some anti-Assad. It is a tragedy.
But, guess what? People in the Middle East are dying over other things besides politics and political freedom – and not just in Syria.
Christians and others are being targeted and killed in the Middle East and Africa and far too many other places on the globe right now.
Where’s the outrage over them?
The U.S. government has become increasingly quiet about international religious persecution – a silence that is almost deafening in light of the fact that religious persecution, especially of Christians, is increasing in many of the same “Arab Spring” countries where the administration is focusing its attention right now.
Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to the U.S. Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF), which offered plenty of examples in its 2012 report that Christians and members of other religions are under attack:
-- EGYPT: “In Egypt, an epicenter of the Arab Spring, hope turned to dismay, as human rights conditions, particularly religious freedom abuses, worsened dramatically under military rule,” the USCIRF reported.
“Authorities continued to prosecute and sentence citizens charged with blasphemy and allowed official media to incite violence against religious minority members, while failing to protect them or to convict responsible parties.”
Egyptian law enforcement and the courts “allowed repeated attacks on Coptic Christians and their churches,” the commissioners said.
“Rather than defending these minorities, military and security forces turned their guns on them, using live ammunition against Coptic Christians and other demonstrators, killing dozens and wounding hundreds in Maspero Square (emphasis added),” the report noted.
-- NIGERIA: “In Nigeria, the government for years had failed to stem Muslim-Christian violence or bring the perpetrators to justice, emboldening others to commit further bloodshed,” the commission said.
The violence peaked over the past year, “claiming more than 800 lives, displacing 65,000 people, and destroying churches and mosques in the three days after Nigeria‘s presidential election, and at least 35 more lives in a series of coordinated church bombings on Christmas Day.”
-- PAKISTAN: “In Pakistan, blasphemy laws and other discriminatory measures such as the anti-Ahmadi provisions have created an atmosphere conducive to chronic violence, which has worsened due to the government‘s failure to bring to justice, or even to charge, anyone for the March 2011 assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan‘s Federal Minister for Minority Affairs and a longtime religious freedom advocate,” the report said.
-- IRAN: In Iran, the country’s Shi’ite leadership “targeted Baha‘is, as well as Christians, Zoroastrians, and Sufi Muslims,” the commission said.
“Members of these groups were harassed, arrested, and imprisoned, including Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian convert who was put on trial for his life. Some dissenters were even executed, while hatred was fomented against Jews through repeated Holocaust denial and other means,” the commission noted.
-- SUDAN: “The [Islamic] Government of Sudan in Khartoum launched its current brutal campaign against the [Christian and animist] Nuban people, bombarding civilians and denying humanitarian assistance in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.”
The commission said it had also “documented Khartoum’s bombing houses of worship and denying humanitarian assistance, leading to nearly half a million (500,000) people being displaced.”
These shocking incidents only scratch the surface.
So where’s the outrage over them, Secretary Clinton? Why aren’t we hearing about that?
You didn’t mention this religious persecution when you rolled out the annual human rights rap sheet last month, Madame Secretary.
Neither did Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, who joined you in presenting the Human Rights Report to the press.
In fact, this year, for the first time ever, the State Department actually removed the section on religious freedom which has traditionally been included in the Human Rights Report.
Mind you, that is the same the 2011 Human Rights Report that does take account of 2011’s “Arab Spring” – there is mention of the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, and about the end to the Gadhafi regime in Libya. It also takes account of the continuing efforts to unseat authoritarian rule in Bahrain.
This is the same report that talks about human rights violations against LGBT Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) persons and women’s issues. (The country report on China, for example, went so far as to note the human rights violation that occurred when Chinese authorities refused to allow a man in Beijing to stage an LGBT film festival.)
But mention religious freedom and the war on Christians? Not so much.
In fact, not at all.
Instead, readers are referred to a separate report, The International Religious Freedom Report, which is months away from being released. And because of a change in the coverage period by the administration, that report will probably not cover most of 2011 even when it is released.
I asked the State Department about the removal of the section on religious freedom from the Human Rights Report at a recent briefing at Foggy Bottom. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained that the removal came about because the State Department is trying to align the reporting cycles of the Human Rights Report (HRR) with the International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR).
“Previously the HRR covered calendar years, while the IRFR covered a one-year period from July 1 – June 30,” Nuland said, answering my question in a news release.
“For 2011, both reports cover the previous calendar year. The religious freedom section in the HRR was replaced by a link to the IRFR because the latter is a more comprehensive review of the status of religious freedom worldwide, and it would be inefficient to address the same issues in similar documents.”
OK. Got it – you’ve changed the reporting period. No surprise, especially in light of the fact that the Human Rights Report was already three months late when it was finally released (by law it was due Feb. 25, but it wasn’t released until May 24.)
But the IRFR was mandated by the same law that created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 1998. According to the law, the IRFR was intended to supplement, not replace the religious freedom section of the Human Rights Report.
It was supposed to highlight the victims of international religious persecution.
Whatever the reason, the war against Christians isn’t even on the radar screen of the administration.
No one seems to be talking about the fact that people are dying and houses of worship are being bombed and people are being imprisoned and sometimes tortured -- simply for their religious faith.
Only the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems to have the courage to talk about these violations of human rights. But their report, while official, isn’t nearly as visible as the State Department’s Human Rights Report.
And their bully pulpit isn’t nearly as important a megaphone as a State Department podium.
And as bold as the commissioners may be in championing religious freedom, they’re no match for a Secretary of State, with cameras rolling, talking about the fact that “People are dying.”
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