Clinton details religious freedom, nominee faces senators

November 22, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 17 called for continued vigilance to protect religious minorities as her department released its annual report on international religious freedom.

On the same day, the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next roving ambassador for international religious freedom addressed similar issues at her confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The report on 198 countries highlighted challenges, including China’s efforts to forcibly remove Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, and successes, such as Lebanon’s restoration of a Beirut synagogue that was destroyed in a civil war.

“With this report we do not intend to act as a judge of other countries or hold ourselves out as a perfect example, but the United States cares about religious freedom,” Clinton told reporters in releasing the report.

“We have worked hard to enforce religious freedom. We want to see religious freedom available universally.”

The report cited the department’s continued opposition to Muslim states’ annual United Nations resolutions aimed at countering “defamation of religions.” Clinton said it is important to condemn hateful speech, but not ban it.

“Societies in which freedom of religion and speech flourish are more resilient, more stable, more peaceful and more productive,” she said.

In recent days, the Organization of Islamic Conference has drafted an updated U.N. resolution with a new title that condemns the “vilification of religions,” but U.S. religious freedom advocates continue to oppose it.

Clinton did not announce a new list of the worst religious freedom abusers, which are designated as “countries of particular concern,” but reported on continued monitoring of the eight nations that currently have that designation: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

A revised list may be released in a couple of months, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the department’s report mirrors many of his panel’s concerns, but urged greater action from the State Department.

“We urge the State Department to act decisively and designate `countries of particular concern' — something the Obama administration has yet to do,” Leo said.

Just hours before Clinton released her report, senators questioned the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, who was nominated in June by President Obama as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Cook, who advised the Clinton administration on racial issues, retired last December as pastor of New York’s Bronx Christian Fellowship Church, which she founded in 1996. She was also the first woman elected to lead the prestigious Hampton University Ministers’ Conference of black clergy.

Despite her domestic accomplishments, religious freedom experts have questioned her lack of foreign policy experience, even as they are relieved the post is poised to be filled after a two-year vacancy.

During her brief hearing, Cook cited her travel to five continents, global meetings with a range of religious groups and her leading of interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

“I’m persuaded in my mind, heart and soul that religious freedom is the birthright of all people everywhere,” she said. “It is the foundation of civil society ... and must always be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked Johnson Cook about her knowledge of diplomatic troubles facing Orthodox Christians, particularly Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who’s based in Istanbul.

She responded that she had sat with Orthodox leaders at a White House prayer breakfast and had worked with them as a New York police chaplain. She noted plans to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary in Muslim-majority Turkey.

“There is some progress but there are still some serious concerns and it would be high on my priority list,” she said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Nov. 17 called for continued vigilance to protect religious minorities as her department released its annual report on international religious freedom.

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