By Luke Vargas
Although religious freedom might not seem like a critical metric of a nation’s legitimacy, often times the tolerance of religious minorities (or repressed majorities) speaks volume about leaders’ attempts to maintain power in society’s that may wish for change. That was the argument made Monday by Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who told reporters gathered at the State Department for the unveiling of the International Religious Freedom Report for 2011.
“Religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights, it’s the canary in the coal mine,” Cook said.
The Department’s newest report highlights developments since last year’s Arab Spring, noting in particular how citizens have “stood up for dignity, opportunity, and civil and political liberty” across a selection of Arab states. Not surprisingly, those disruptions prompted challenging decisions by provisional governments, rebel groups, and those leaders who have still managed to stay in power by directly combating their opponents.
Delivering remarks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace later Monday afternoon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton zoomed in changes in two countries, Egypt and Libya, both of which have undergone major leadership changes.
Egypt’s report focused predominantly on the country’s Coptic Christian minority, which has long been at risk of persecution in the nearly 90% Muslim state, as well as on the possibility that a decades-long policy of Israeli tolerance (albeit frosty) could be upset by the ouster of pro-Western leader Hosni Mubarak in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly elected prime minister, Mohamed Morsi.
Secretary Clinton wondered aloud if “a government looking explicitly to greater reliance on Islamic principles [could] stand up for non-Muslims and Muslims equally,” a frequent question beguiling Western leaders as Morsi seeks to assume greater responsibility from the country’s ruling military council, but she stressed the importance of citizens embracing tolerance regardless of the decisions of leaders. “If in the years ahead, if Egyptians continue to protect that precious recognition of what every single Egyptian can contribute to the future of their country,” Clinton said, “then they can bring hope and healing to many communities in Egypt who need that message.”
In Libya, the violent overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi also shook up the governing climate, but the 2011 report largely complimented the country’s efforts to scale back old laws that gave the state power to prosecute those who insulted Islam, and the report applauded key elements of an interim constitution that dialed back persecution and “enshrined the free practice of religion.”
Clinton said that recent actions on the part of the Libyan Supreme Court show that the country has “come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with more speech that reveals the emptiness of the insults and the lies.”
While publications like the Religious Freedom Report present a forum for America to candidly make public certain global abuses the general public may know little about, when it comes to major geopolitical competitors such as Russia and China, the report is notably more cautious to walk a fine line between documenting issues and disturbing complicated diplomatic relations. China’s report, for example, is harsh but carefully worded. One detail highlighted the over “ankang” facilities, high-security psychiatric hospitals for China’s criminally insane where a number of religious believers, including members of the persecuted Falun Gong faith are suspected of being detained.
Per the report, “Unregistered religious believers and Falun Gong adherents were among those reported to be held with mentally ill patients in these institutions.” Even worse, “Some neighborhood communities reportedly were instructed to report on Falun Gong members to officials; monetary rewards were offered to citizens who informed on Falun Gong practitioners.”
Pressed on details of how American appeals for religious freedom were received by the Chinese during the ongoing strategic dialog between the two countries, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook merely said that “there was discussion” about the Falun Gong and other issues of religious freedom in China.
At the conclusion of the State Department’s report, eight nations were singled out as “Countries of Particular Concern” for the free practice of religion. The same eight nations from the 2010 report were included again in 2011: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.