McCain, Obama Urged to Make Int’l Religious Freedom a Priority

By Patrick Goodenough | July 18, 2008 | 5:14 AM EDT

( – International religious freedom is an important issue to American voters, and the 2008 presidential candidates are being urged to give the matter due attention.
“Freedom of religion and the freedom to speak openly about ideas and beliefs here and abroad should be a high priority for the next president of the United States,” Angela C. Wu, international law director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said Thursday.
Wu was addressing a Congressional Human Rights Caucus conference on religious freedom.
Speaking at the same event was Robert Seiple, who served as the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position created under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
“The next president needs to be fully in touch with the issue of international religious freedom,” said Seiple, who left the State Department post in 2000. “Religious freedom needs to be on the front burner of the president-elect.”
In a recent poll of American Christians commissioned by Open Doors USA and released this week, 54 percent of respondents said religious freedom should be a high priority in making U.S. foreign policy.
The organization, which estimates that 100 million Christians around the world are facing repression for their faith, said the poll result presented a challenge for presidential aspirants Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama.
“Open Doors commissioned this study to try to understand what Christians in America feel about religious freedom. Clearly, it is a priority,” said president and chief executive officer Carl Moeller.
“The findings of this study demonstrate that senators McCain and Obama must address the issue of religious freedom in their foreign policy positions if they are intent on winning the vote of faithful Christians.”
Ninety-six percent of respondents in the poll believed strongly that religious freedom was a basic human right, and more than eight in 10 believed it was a very important basic right.
Support for a foreign policy focused on religious freedom was highest among Christians between the ages of 45 and 64, especially churchgoing women. Baptists, Lutherans and those identifying with non-denominational or independent churches felt most strongly about the issue.
Respondents favored the U.S. using “indirect” methods, such as economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, to apply pressure on regimes that abuse religious freedom.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. government can designate “countries of particular concern (CPCs), and may take measures, including sanctions, against governments that engage in or tolerate serious religious freedom violations.
Countries currently on the CPC list are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Citing improvements, the State Department removed Vietnam in late 2006, although the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent advisory panel set up under the IRFA, says the step was premature.
At a White House ceremony this week marking the IRFA’s 10th anniversary, President Bush cited continuing problems in a number of countries, including China and Saudi Arabia. “We urge these leaders to respect the rights of those who seek only to worship their God as they see fit,” he said.
McCain has pledged to make religious freedom “a subject of great importance” in America’s relations with other nations.
“Behind walls of prisons and persecuted before our very eyes in places like China, Iran, Burma, Sudan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are tens of thousands of people whose only crime is to worship God in their own way,” he said in a May 7 speech at Michigan’s Oakland University. “No society that denies religious freedom can ever rightly claim to be good in some other way.”
“As president … I will work in close concert with democratic allies to raise the prominence of religious freedom in every available forum,” McCain said.
Obama in a speech on Latin America delivered in Florida in May, said U.S. backing for democracy abroad must go beyond the ballot box and include support for religious freedom, among other things. Among the presumptive Democratic nominee’s policy advisors is Preeta Bansal, a commissioner and former chairperson of the USCIRF.
‘Defamation of religion’ concerns
Thursday’s Congressional Human Rights Caucus event also heard concerns about a campaign by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to get international institutions to outlaw “religious defamation.” Some critics say the drive by the 57-nation Islamic bloc, which has already achieved resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Council, aims to block legitimate debate and criticism of some of the more controversial practices associated with Islam.
“The U.N. resolutions establish the ability to sue for ‘defamatory’ speech of an idea rather than a person,” Wu said. “Criticizing any religion, saying the Prophet Mohamed is not a prophet, or Jesus did not come to redeem sins, could offend someone and be a cause of action.”
Wu appealed to McCain and Obama to sponsor legislation in the Senate to protect Americans from defamation rulings made by foreign courts.
A U.S. House bill currently before the House Judiciary Committee seeks to amend the judicial code to prohibit U.S. courts from recognizing or enforcing foreign defamation rulings unless found to be consistent with the First Amendment.
Sponsor Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said in introducing it last May that it would address the problem of “libel tourism,” – attempts by plaintiffs to get around First Amendment restraints on defamation by taking action against U.S. citizens in foreign courts.
Other bills introduced in the House and Senate this year would allow a U.S. citizen facing a defamation lawsuit in a foreign country to bring a case in a U.S. court against the person or institution bringing the original suit – if the speech or writing in question would not constitute defamation in the U.S.
The OIC says defamation of religion resolutions are necessary because of “Islamophobia” occurring in Western countries, particularly in the years since 9/11.
At a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jeddah in June, OIC secretary-general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said he “emphasized the need for OIC and the U.N. to cooperate to ensure that international resolutions are issued to counter Islamophobia and combat hate campaigns and defamation against religious beliefs and sacred symbols.”
A week later, Ihsanoglu reported to OIC foreign ministers meeting in Uganda on the organization’s successes since placing the issue “at the top of our priorities and preoccupations.”
Apart from the U.N. resolutions, he said, the OIC had been exhorting officials in countries were Islamophobia was occurring “to assume their inherent legal responsibilities in order to stem this illegal trend in conformity with international and domestic [anti-discrimination] laws.”
Citing the OIC efforts, six press freedom organizations in a joint resolution last month expressed concern about attempts to justify curtailing free expression in the name of avoiding religious offense.
They said the narrow limitations on speech such as those in civil defamation laws aimed to protect the reputations of individuals, and “were never intended to shield religions as a whole from criticism.”
The organizations – the Committee of Protect Journalists, Inter American Press Association, International Association of Broadcasting, International Press Institute, World Association of Newspapers and the World Press Freedom Committee – called on the U.N. “to put an end to this erosion of the right to freedom of expression.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow