US Promotion of International Religious Freedom

Here is an article from Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Knox Thames, the Director of Policy and Research at USCIRF.

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At this time of global change, when questions of religion and state relations are being redefined, the universal right to freedom of religion or belief has never been more important.  The upcoming TEDx ViaDellaConciliazione focusing on religious freedom is both timely and welcome. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent U.S. government advisory body established by Congress to monitor religious freedom worldwide and make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.  The only such entity in the world, USCIRF is led by Commissioners, appointed by the President and leaders of Congress, who bring a variety of professional experiences and faith perspectives.    The Commission is staffed by a professional staff of expert analysts to monitor religious freedom globally.

USCIRF was created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to be an independent watchdog of U.S. government activity that identifies violations of religious freedom and develops policy solutions to advance religious freedom for everyone everywhere.  USCIRF is separate and distinct from the State Department.  However, IRFA also established a special office within the State Department, the Office of International Religious Freedom, led by an ambassador at large.  USCIRF relies upon contacts with religious organizations, international and nongovernmental organizations, and the U.S. government to gather information to develop recommendations.   

Beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, nations around the world have freely assented to international standards which have enshrined freedom of religion or belief.

Yet by any measure, today’s actual landscape for religious freedom around the world is challenging. According to a Pew Research study released last August, 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that perpetrate or tolerate serious religious freedom abuses. In other words, three out of every four people on earth live in a hostile and repressive environment for the practice of faith.

Based on our own monitoring, we have found that people continue to be denied religious freedom in all too many countries, with violations ranging from onerous rules and regulations to imprisonment, torture, and even murder.

Through our work, we have observed how governments engage in or allow at least three kinds of violations: state hostility toward religion, state sponsorship of extremist religious ideology, and state failure to prevent and punish religious freedom violations. Through state hostility, individuals or groups are persecuted on account of their beliefs. State sponsorship involves governments promoting – including exporting – violent and extremist religious ideas that include calls to violate the religious freedom – and sometimes even the right to life – of others. State failure refers to governments abandoning their duty to protect those whom others are targeting due to their beliefs, creating a climate of impunity in which religious dissenters are threatened, intimidated, or even murdered.

In response to such violations, IRFA requires the President, who has delegated this authority to the Secretary of State, to designate as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, those governments that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” religious freedom violations.  IRFA defines “particularly severe” violations as ones that are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious,” including acts such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, disappearances, or “other flagrant denial[s] of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”  After a country is designated a CPC, the President is required by law to take specific actions to encourage reform. 

The State Department has currently designated eight countries as CPCs – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.  In USCIRF’s last Annual Report, we agreed with those designations, but concluded additional countries also met the legal threshold and should also be named CPC.  USCIRF also monitors other countries where the serious violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments do not meet the CPC threshold but require close monitoring.  USCIRF’s upcoming 2013 Annual Report will be released by May 1stand will provide USCIRF’s new recommendations for CPC countries and other actions our government can take.  Readers will be able to find it at

International religious freedom has never mattered more, and USCIRF plays an important role in keeping religious freedom front-and-center on the U.S. foreign policy agenda.  However, we cannot do it alone, and it is critical that individuals and religious communities also raise concerns about violations of this fundamental human right. 

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