Washington, DC - Throughout the Obama Administration, the U.S. Government has prioritized efforts to promote freedom of religion globally as a universal human right, a strategic national interest, and as a key foreign policy objective. The Administration has praised countries that have made strides to promote religious freedom, assisted governments in taking steps to address shortcomings, and denounced severe violators of religious freedom; provided support to individuals who have been persecuted on account of their beliefs, and advocated for the rights of religious minorities.
The Obama Administration has also worked closely with civil society organizations, including religious communities, in promoting freedom of religion or belief for all people.
The Administration has leveraged the tools of U.S. diplomacy, foreign assistance funds, and other activities abroad to advance this goal, ensuring that efforts to promote and protect religious freedom are fully integrated into broader policies to ensure freedom and dignity for all people.
The Obama Administration’s record on promoting and protecting religious freedom around the globe includes:
Advancing a Global Vision for International Religious Freedom
- In his 2009 speech at Cairo University, President Obama laid out a vision of the need for mutual respect and understanding across countries and societies, noting that, “People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul.”
- In a 2012 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed: “Religious freedom is not just about religion. It’s not just about the right of Roman Catholics to organize a mass, or Muslims to hold a religious funeral, or Baha’is to meet in each other’s homes for prayer, or Jews to celebrate High Holy Days together – as important as those rituals are. Religious freedom is also about the right of people to think what they want, say what they think, and come together in fellowship without the state looking over their shoulder.”
- In 2012 remarks at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, then-Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough articulated the nexus between religious freedom and national security: “Put simply, religious pluralism, tolerance and freedom can help promote stability, security, development and democratic progress. And the lack of religious freedom is itself destabilizing. … For all these reasons, advancing religious freedom around the world is not only consistent with our values as Americans, it advances our national security interests. This is formalized in the President Obama’s National Security Strategy.”
- At the 2014 National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama noted, “around the world freedom of religion is under threat. … We see governments engaging in discrimination and violence against the faithful. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution. …I’ve made the case that no society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its peoples, including religious minorities… Going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world. And that includes, by the way, opposing blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities. We continue to stand for the rights of all people to practice their faiths in peace and in freedom. And we will continue to stand against the ugly tide of anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head all too often.”
- During the September 2015 visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, President Obama noted, “[A]round the world, at this very moment, children of God…are targeted and even killed because of their faith. Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship. The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed. So we stand…in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation.”
- In an October 2015 statement, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that “countries benefit when their citizens fully enjoy the rights to which they are entitled. And this is not a hopeful theory; this is a proven reality. No nation can fulfill its potential if its people are denied the right to practice, to hold, to modify, to openly profess their innermost beliefs.”
- During his February 2016 visit to a mosque in Baltimore, Maryland, President Obama said, “if we’re serious about freedom of religion…we have to understand an attack on one faith is an attack on all our faiths. And when any religious group is targeted, we all have a responsibility to speak up. And we have to reject a politics that seeks to manipulate prejudice or bias, and targets people because of religion… And just as faith leaders, including Muslims, must speak out when Christians are persecuted around the world – or when anti-Semitism is on the rise – because the fact is, is that there are Christians who are targeted now in the Middle East, despite having been there for centuries, and there are Jews who’ve lived in places like France for centuries who now feel obliged to leave because they feel themselves under assault –sometimes by Muslims. We have to be consistent in condemning hateful rhetoric and violence against everyone. And that includes against Muslims here in the United States of America.”
- In March 2016, Secretary Kerry announced that, in his judgment, “Da’esh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Da’esh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions – in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Da’esh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
Seizing Opportunities, Expanding U.S. Capacity to Promote Religious Freedom
- President Obama and other U.S. Government officials have and will continue to lift up the importance of religious freedom in countries around the world. President Obama has privately and publicly raised religious freedom on numerous occasions during his travels, including in addresses to the people of Vietnam, Cuba, India, China, and Turkey. He has spoken out on the plight of persecuted religious minority communities, including Rohingya Muslims in Burma, Christians in the Middle East, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, the Baha’is in Iran, and Coptic Christians. He has raised his voice on themes including anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiments, U.S. opposition to blasphemy laws, and the right to wear religious attire. And he has discussed the plight of religious communities with religious leaders including the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis and Christian leaders from the Middle East. Similarly, in private diplomatic consultations, the President and other senior U.S. officials routinely express concerns to governments about abusive laws and policies negatively impacting on religious freedom, including with the leaders of China, Pakistan, and Egypt, among many others.
- One of the less-publicized aspects of U.S. efforts in recent years involves work helping obtain freedom for individual prisoners of conscience around the world. While in some cases we speak publicly about the plight of those imprisoned on account of their religious beliefs or activities, in many more instances, this work takes place behind the scenes, as U.S. officials quietly but vigorously lobby foreign officials to free specific individuals imprisoned for everything from blasphemy allegations to seeking conscientious objector status to vaguely defined charges of “extremism.” In every one of these instances, we must carefully weigh whether to work publicly or privately to achieve that person’s release. Far too many people remain imprisoned for their religion or beliefs, but we have seen many individuals freed, in part through our efforts. For example, President Obama and other senior officials repeatedly called for the release of Christian Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran in 2012, who was finally able to return home to his Iowa church and community earlier this year. Similarly, after repeated calls for the release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, arrested in 2012, the North Korean government finally did so in 2014. Senior U.S. officials strongly condemned the death sentence of Meriam Ishag, a Christian convert for apostasy in Sudan, and were delighted at her subsequent release.
- The Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom today has more staff, resources and program funds than at any time since its creation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom serves as a principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State on this critical topic. Since his appointment in January 2015, the current Ambassador at Large has traveled to more than 25 countries, including five of the ten “Countries of Particular Concern,” meeting with government officials, parliamentarians, human rights activists, religious leaders, and believers from nearly all world religious traditions, along with skeptics and non-believers. In each country, he has pressed government officials to address shortcomings or partner with the United States in promoting universal respect for freedom of religion or belief.
- In 2013, the United States adopted a National Strategy on Integrating Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement into U.S. foreign policy. This strategy acknowledge the significant contributions of religious leaders and faith communities to human rights, global health and development and conflict mitigation; and that the U.S. government should integrate more robust engagement with them into broader foreign policy activities. Accordingly, the Administration has worked closely with a diverse spectrum of religious and other civil society leaders to advance pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom. The State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, established in 2013 by Secretary Kerry, and the Office of International Religious Freedom, along with U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, help implement the Strategy.
- When Pope Francis visited the United States in September 2015, the White House announced a series of new commitments to advance religious freedom around the globe. Specifically, in the face of Da’esh atrocities in Iraq and Syria, the Administration appointed a Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, to help ensure that the urgent needs of religious minority communities are taken into consideration in our military and humanitarian planning, and our multi-pronged efforts to assist in the return of these communities to their ancestral homes are implemented as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.
- During this Administration, the Department of State has dramatically increased training of American diplomats on religious freedom, including promoting best practices for engaging governments, drafting reports, and liaising effectively with civil society and religious communities. In 2011, the Department’s Foreign Service Institute began offering a four-day course on Religion and Foreign Policy, which has to date reached over 250 American diplomats and local staff of U.S. embassies abroad. In 2015, the Department launched a two-day course on religious freedom, offered in multiple sessions at the Foreign Service Institute’s regional training centers in Bangkok, Frankfurt, and Fort Lauderdale, reaching an additional 80 U.S. diplomats and embassy staff. The Department’s religious freedom experts have also lectured on these topics at a range of other courses, including for training U.S. Army Chaplains at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
- The Obama Administration has redoubled efforts to ensure that government officials who are found to have engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom cannot obtain visas to enter the United States, as required under Section 212(a)(2)(G) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
- The Administration has revitalized the “Countries of Particular Concern” mechanism provided under the International Religious Freedom Act by regularizing the announcement and designation of CPCs, and by making the list dynamic through the addition of two new countries to the list of the world’s worst religious freedom offenders.
- The Administration has continued efforts to enhance the accuracy and rigor of the annual International Religious Freedom Reports, which describe in detail the status of religious freedom in every country of the world.
Coalition-Building and Multilateral Efforts
- After years of fighting efforts in the United Nations calling for criminalization of speech alleged to be insulting or offensive to religion (i.e. blasphemy laws), the U.S. Government in March 2011 helped to forge global consensus on a landmark new approach, embodied in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18. This resolution calls for efforts to combat religiously-motivated intolerance, discrimination, and violence in ways that do not infringe on the fundamental freedoms of expression or religion. Since that resolution’s adoption, the U.S. government has participated in a series of annual multilateral expert-level meetings aimed at identifying best practices for implementation of the actions called for in the resolution.
- In 2015, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and his Canadian counterpart launched the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, an initiative that now includes over 25 likeminded governments working in coordination on strategies to promote and protect religious freedom across the world, and developing reinforcing strategies and tactics. In May 2016, the State Department convened a meeting of the International Contact Group to discuss next steps and plan a way forward for collective action.
- In July 2016, the Department of State hosted a major international conference on the global Response to Threats to Religious and Ethnic Minorities under Da’esh, which brought officials from over 30 governments and scores of civil society organizations and religious representatives together to discuss new steps to safeguard religious diversity in Iraq and Syria.
- In 2015, the United States partnered with the EU, Israel, and Canada to organize the first-ever UN General Assembly meeting on combatting anti-Semitism, in which 47 countries and organizations participated and many spoke out against rising world-wide anti-Semitism.
Supporting Religious Freedom Advocates through Foreign Assistance Funds
- Over the course of this Administration, the Administration has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to foreign assistance programs to promote greater respect for religious freedom and to combat abuses, with $16 million in such activities currently ongoing.
- Through emergency funding mechanisms, the Department of State assists individuals and religious advocates facing egregious persecution for their belief or non-belief by providing assistance for critical needs such as legal fees, dependent support, and security-related relocation. The Department of State also provides small grants to defenders of religious freedom including legal and political advocates and NGO advocacy networks to build their capacity to protect religious freedom when it is under attack.
- In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and Department of State collaborated to launch a program to assist religious minority communities in northern Iraq with cultural heritage preservation. Also in cooperation with the Smithsonian, State funding has led to the development of materials to train the Kurdish Peshmerga forces on identifying mass graves and cultural heritage sites. Department of State funding has also supported a partnership with an NGO to examine satellite telemetry and use geospatial analysis to identify potential mass gravesites located in areas under Da’esh control.
- Since 2013, the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security have collaborated on an innovative effort to assist governments worldwide in training local officials on legal and policy protections for religious freedom, particularly regarding engagement with members of religious minorities and enforcement of non-discrimination laws. Such trainings have taken place in half a dozen countries so far, with several more in the planning stages.
- Additional foreign assistance programs focus on topics including: mitigating societal or sectarian violence, minimizing legal or other restrictions of the right to the freedom of religion, training civil society and government officials on the legal and policy protections for religious freedom, strengthening the capacity of civil society and religious leaders to track religious freedom violations and conduct advocacy to stop them, and combatting drivers of violent extremism in key countries. Here are some examples:
- In the Central African Republic, the Department of State supports early warning programs to increase effective communication and community resilience across religious lines. These programs seek to create networks of trust across communities, using traditional and religious leaders along with youth who are specially trained in de-escalation techniques, constructive engagement, and provide leaders with early warning about potential triggering events that could lead to violence and contribute to long term tensions.
- A Department of State grant has empowered NGOs in Eastern and Central Europe to monitor anti-Semitic expression appearing in traditional and new media, and to counter such attitudes through fact-based messages and acts of inclusion. The NGOs have used findings from the media monitoring to create cartoons, posters and other media products to counter anti-Semitism. Additional programs support the establishment of grassroots coalitions to combat xenophobic attitudes and behavior. These coalitions have been able to effectively combat xenophobia and advocate for more societal acceptance toward religious minorities.
- In countries in East Asia, the Department of State supports programs that strengthen legal protections for religious freedom. Through these programs, lawyers learn strategic practices with regard to setting precedents, citing international human rights cases and agreements, and creating networks of like-minded jurists who are specially trained in religious liberty case-law. Through these efforts, minorities are able to expect to receive adequate counsel that is respectful of their religious or ethnic traditions when faced with governmental or societal discrimination or persecution.
- In Central Asia, the Department of State supports NGO efforts to build networks of religious leaders with the aim of helping them more effectively coordinate policy advocacy around issues of mutual interest or concern. Such efforts have included bringing religious leaders together in order to better understand their individual concerns, and to promote increased trust and mutual understanding among leaders from different faith traditions.
Coming Together and Taking Action
- In 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, which included a working group on Religious Freedom, Security, and Democracy. Through this effort, U.S. officials collaborated with religious leaders and faith communities as well as other civil society leaders to develop strategies to promote religious freedom, and address issues of conflict prevention and mitigation, development and interreligious dialogue. The working group provided recommendations to the Department of State aimed toward strengthening its approach to religious freedom and engagement with religious communities, many of which have been adopted.
- To build greater understanding and a spirit of inclusion among youth around the world, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism and Special Representative to Muslim Communities, launched the Hours Against Hate campaign, asking young people to pledge to spend at least one hour helping out people who don’t look like them or pray like them. The campaign went viral, as young people around the world committed to spend tens of thousands of hours walking in someone else’s shoes.
- The Department of State in 2010 and 2013 sponsored trips of prominent American and international imams and Muslim scholars to Dachau and Auschwitz with the Special Envoys to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Special Envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The imams released public statements condemning Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism after both trips.
- Under the prior Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Female Faces of Faith initiative aimed to holistically integrate female religious actors into U.S. policy and engagement by more comprehensively highlighting religious freedom violations in which women were particularly susceptible; emphasizing the role women play in mitigating religiously motivated conflict and countering violent extremism; and advocating for reform of personal status codes that disadvantage women.
- U.S. diplomats and development professionals work with host governments and local populations globally to address discriminatory laws, support affirmative steps, and to encourage more inclusive policies. We continue to work in partnership with like-minded governments, civil society organizations, religious leaders, and the private sector to advance respect for freedom of religion or belief for all.
- U.S. Embassies, Consulates, and USAID Missions engage religious communities to understand their concerns and to discuss U.S. foreign policy priorities with them.