'Potentially Damaging Confusion' Plagues US Policy on Religious Freedom

By Matt Pyeatt | July 7, 2008 | 8:28pm EDT

Washington (CNSNews.com) - There is "potentially damaging confusion" over how the United States communicates the problem of religious persecution to the rest of the world, a top State Department official admitted Wednesday, two weeks after the release of a report listing the world's 22 worst violators of religious liberties.

That recent report was issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), an agency created in 1998 to give independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.

But CIRF's message competes with the official line coming from the similar sounding State Department Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF), according to OIRF Director Tom Farr.

"I'll be candid in telling you that there are some challenges presented in the parallel work of the commission and my office, each presuming within its respective statutory realms the objectives of U.S. religious freedom policy," Farr said. "The core of the problem, in my view, is that there is an unfortunate and potentially damaging confusion out there over who does what."

Both the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and John V. Hanford III, whom President Bush appointed as ambassador-at-large for the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom came under attack Wednesday.

"I'm not impressed with the commission and the ambassador and their impact on public policy. My own judgment is that the commission, in terms of its impact on public policy on its best days, gets a C minus, and that's generous, generous grading," said Michael Horowitz, senior fellow and director of the Project for International Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute.

The commission needs to be more aggressive in fighting religious persecution, Horowitz charged.

"Your responsibility is not to write reports and make recommendations. It is to have recommendations adopted, to make it real and live," Horowitz said.

In its 2002 report on religious persecution, the CIRF listed 22 Countries of Primary Concern (CPCs).

Afghanistan, Belgium, Burma, China, Egypt, France, Georgia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Nigeria, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam made the list.

The former Taliban regime in Afghanistan was listed as a "particularly severe violator" of religious freedom. The commission's report also highlighted the need to "foster religious tolerance and respect for human rights in the reconstruction of post-Taliban Afghanistan."

The report blamed France for its "anti-cult" law and accused the government of fostering anti-Semitism. Georgia, where recent violence has targeted Jehovah's Witnesses, also raised concern in the CIRF report. And North Korea, "where religious freedom is non-existent," was criticized again.

But confusion over which agency represents the U.S., prevented Farr from meeting with official church leaders on a recent visit to China. Farr said the Chinese "do not understand the American penchant for checks and balances."

"We have to do a better job in articulating not only how many official institutions we have pressing for religious freedom, but also the critical distinctions between those institutions and how they support U.S. policy," Farr said.

Horowitz disagreed calling Farr's comments "bureaucratic twattle."

"The fact that Tom Farr couldn't get a meeting with the Chinese is irrelevant ... as to whether or not there is freedom for Christians or Falun Gong in China," Horowitz said. "If China is dealing with this issue at the level of Tom Farr or the ambassador, you can kiss the hopes of those people goodbye."

Joseph Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said he believes both the commission and the State Department play important and distinctive roles in promoting international religious freedom.

"It is the ambassador that is the principal voice of the U.S. government on the issue," Grieboski said. "They are the ones who have to talk to the top. It is the State Department whose responsibility it is to speak responsibly the policies to foreign governments.

"The report of the commission does a wonderful job of stating what exactly the commission has done, and I think it is very important that people know that. But, it is more important, I think, that the commission begin to take a long view. The State Department is the tactical element of the U.S. government in dealing with the overall U.S. foreign policy," he said.

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