WASHINGTON, DC — The United States has failed to regularly impose punitive sanctions on governments that violate religious freedom despite a dramatic rise in persecution in recent decades, relying instead on “ineffective” and “insufficient” rhetorical condemnations, an expert told a House panel.
Although Dr. Thomas Farr, the president of the Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Institute, acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy is not to blame for the dramatic rise in religious persecution, he noted, “The State Department has not recognized it as a crisis, and has done little to address its root causes.”
Farr blamed “aggressive secularism in our own political culture” for the ineffective U.S. international religious freedom policy, adding, “Many of our leaders no longer believe in the value of religion in our public lives and therefore are indifferent or hostile to religious freedom.”
It is hard to sell a product in which you do not believe, let alone one you hold in contempt. Unfortunately, there are also powerful reasons why our religious freedom policy is staunchly resisted by foreign societies and their governments, and why our rhetorical, reactive, and occasionally punitive actions have had so little purchase. Each society is different, but the resistance often comes down to this: no nation responds well to condemnations of, and exhortations to alter, its policies on religion.
Dr. Farr pointed out that the United States could use religious freedom policy to undermine terrorism.
“Societies lacking religious freedom are far more likely to incubate, suffer domestically, and export internationally, religion-related terrorism,” he said. “We have documented the reverse connection as well: Societies that protect religious freedom generally do not incubate religious violence and terrorism.”
The expert noted that the International Religious Freedom Act, which established America’s religious freedom policy, has mainly relied on failed verbal advocacy, urging governments to protect their citizens against violators by adhering to international norms.
“The [U.S.] policy has entailed rhetorical condemnation of persecutors through annual reports and lists of particularly severe violators,” he explained. “On rare occasions, it has imposed a punitive sanction … These punitive actions were not only unusual. They were also reactive and ultimately ineffective, which is to say they did little to address the causes of persecution.”
Christians, Yazidis, and other minority groups in the Middle East who have been victims of genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) accused the United States of “all talk, no action” when it condemned the terrorist group’s deeds but failed to impose any punishment.
Dr. Farr also argued that rhetorical condemnation has failed to work, rendering U.S. international religious freedom policy ineffective.
He told lawmakers:
It has been my contention for some years, including in appearances before this Committee, that this general mode of U.S. action – rhetorical advocacy, reports, ad hoc punitive actions, none of which is part of a national strategy – is insufficient. By itself it has not been effective.
During the past two decades, global religious persecution has increased dramatically, and protections for religious freedom have been in sharp decline. Millions suffer persecution. Tens of millions lack religious freedom. Religion-related terrorism threatens much of the world, including the United States. Indeed, during these years we have seen the emergence of a global crisis in religious freedom.
To improve the effectiveness of its religious freedom policy, the United States must convince other governments that freedom of religion is “necessary” for the advancement of every culture, said Dr. Farr.
“It is necessary for the flourishing of every individual and of every society. And it is certainly necessary if societies abroad are to reduce the incubation and export of violent religious extremism,” he told the House panel.
“The United States can no longer afford to neglect this important opportunity for advancing religious freedom and American interests simultaneously,” he added. “Our foreign policy and national security leadership should, on the basis of the evidence, make a conscious decision to integrate religious freedom into our national security strategy, and to generate far more diplomatic energy and resources than currently is the case.”