Kerry: U.S. ‘An Unwavering Advocate' for Religious Freedom

By Brittany M. Hughes | July 25, 2014 | 5:36 PM EDT

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

-- One day after Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian formerly imprisoned in Sudan for refusing to denounce her faith in Jesus Christ, was flown to safety in Italy, Secretary of State John Kerry hailed her release as a victory for “supporters of religious freedom,” and reaffirmed the United States as an “advocate for the right to freedom of religion worldwide.”

Meriam was arrested on February 17 after her brother told police she left Islam to marry Daniel Wani, who is a Christian and an American citizen. Under Islamic law in Sudan, apostasy is a capital crime, and on May 15 she was convicted and sentenced to death. She was imprisoned with her 21-month-old son, and she gave birth to a daughter while still in shackles.

But Meriam insisted all along that she was raised a Christian, and she refused to renounce her faith.

Facing international pressure and condemnation, the Sudanese government freed Ibrahim on June 23, but she was detained again the next day at the airport in Khartoum for alleged document fraud, preventing her from leaving the country. 

Meriam Ibrahim, finally allowed to leave Sudan, arrives in Rome, accompanied by Italian deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, on Thursday, July 24, 2014. The Sudanese woman, married to an American, Christian man, was sentenced to death in Sudan under Islamic law for refusing to recant her Christian faith. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

“Around the world, supporters of religious freedom celebrate the arrival of Meriam Ishag [Ibrahim] and her family in Rome,” Kerry said in a press release issued by the State Department, adding he is “grateful to the Government of Italy for its role in working with the Government of Sudan to enable Ms. Ishag and her family to depart Sudan.”

“I want to acknowledge the many individuals in the United States and the international community who expressed their concern at Ms. Ishag’s plight,” Kerry said. “Their concerns were our cause. I am especially proud that our diplomatic efforts through the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum helped secure Ms. Ishag’s and her family’s release. The United States will continue to be an unwavering advocate for the right to freedom of religion worldwide.”

“I extend my personal best wishes to Ms. Ishag and her family as they rebuild their lives and restore hope for a future where all people can live their faiths fully and freely,” he added.

Despite Kerry's claims, ​ the Obama administration’s purported  commitment to religious freedom has been met with criticism and questions throughout Obama’s nearly six-year term.

The position of “Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,” created in 1998 to address growing threats to religious freedom worldwide, was vacant when Obama first took office in January of 2009. The job remained open for more than two years before finally being filled by Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook in May of 2011.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. ( Starr)

Following Cook’s resignation in October 2013, the post has yet to be filled once again, reported earlier this month. When asked for an update on the administration’s attempt to fill the position, during a press briefing on July 9, State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said she had no update.

Questions over the administration’s promotion of religious freedom have not just been relegated to the international sphere, with some Americans saying their right to “live their faiths fully and freely” in the United States are increasingly coming under attack by the federal government.

Testifying before Congress on Wednesday, July 23,  Family Research Council President Tony Perkins strongly criticized the Obama administration for its “virtual silence” while Ibrahim was in prison, accusing the president and the State Department of “ignoring the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which states that ‘it shall be the policy of the United States to condemn violations of religious freedom and to promote and assist other governments in the promotion of the fundamental right to freedom of religion.’”

“A warning should be sounded across America that an indifference to religious persecution abroad can only lead to greater religious intolerance here at home,” Perkins warned, saying that “it is difficult to look at these facts and not understand them in light of the current administration’s unilateral reinterpretation of religious freedom domestically.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has denounced the Obamacare mandate on abortion drugs as "unjust and illegal" and a "violation of personal civil rights." (AP)

“This administration believes religious beliefs should be quarantined to private spaces and excluded from the public space. This truncated view of religious freedom domestically more accurately described as the freedom of worship, is matched by the administration’s failure to address the growing threats to religious freedom internationally,” Perkins added.

In the United States, questions of religious freedom have sparked widespread debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which was openly criticized by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 2012 as an “unwarranted government definition of religion” and a  “violation of personal civil rights.”

“The introduction of this unprecedented defining of faith communities and their ministries has precipitated this struggle for religious freedom,” the conference’s leadership said in a written statement at the time. “Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry.”

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, 40 religious non-profit organizations, including 15 dioceses and 27 universities, and 22 for-profit businesses, including 3 Bible companies, are currently fighting the federal mandate requiring them to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients through their health care plans.

Earlier this month, the Becket Fund successfully argued Hobby Lobby’s claim that the mandate requiring the company to pay for certain abortion-inducing drugs for its employees violated the company owners’ deeply held religious beliefs. Several other for-profit companies and multiple non-profit organizations are still waiting for court decisions to determine whether they will qualify for the same exemption to the mandate.

Other complaints against the Obama administration’s violation of religious beliefs include the president’s promise to sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers with deeply held religious beliefs from not hiring employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill passed the Senate last year, but has not yet been brought to the House floor for a vote.