State Department Purges Religious Freedom Section from Its Human Rights Reports
by PETE WINN
June 11, 2012
The U.S. State Department removed the sections covering religious freedom from the Country Reports on Human Rights that it released on May 24, three months past the statutory deadline Congress set for the release of these reports.
The new human rights reports--purged of the sections that discuss the status of religious freedom in each of the countries covered--are also the human rights reports that include the period that covered the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
Thus, the reports do not provide in-depth coverage of what has happened to Christians and other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East that saw the rise of revolutionary movements in 2011 in which Islamist forces played an instrumental role.
For the first time ever, the State Department simply eliminated the section of religious freedom in its reports covering 2011 and instead referred the public to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report - a full two years behind the times - or to the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was released last September and covers events in 2010 but not 2011.
Leonard Leo, who recently completed a term as chairman of the USCIRF, says that removing the sections on religious freedom from the State Department's Country Reports on Human Roghts is a bad idea.
Since 1998, when Congress created USCIRF, the State Department has been required to issue a separate yearly report specifically on International Religious Freedom.
But a section reporting on religious freedom has also always been included in the State Department's legally required annual country-by-country reports on human rights--that is, until now.
And this is the first year the State Department would have needed to report on the effect the Arab Spring has had on religious freedom in the Middle East--had its reports, as always before, included a section on religious freedom.
"The commission that I served on has some real concerns about that bifurcation, because the human rights reports receive a lot of attention, and to have pulled religious freedom out of it means that fewer people will obtain information about what's going on with that particular freedom or right. So you don't have the whole picture because they split it up now," Leo told CNSNews.com.
Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Farr says it's possible that the move to totally separate religious freedom from the human rights reports could simply be a bureaucratic maneuver.
But another possibility is much more likely.
"The other possibility is the Obama administration is downplaying international religious freedom," Farr said.
Farr, who served in the State Department under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, was the first director of the Office of International Religious Freedom.
"I mean, it is important to note here that I do not know--I have no personal knowledge of the logic that went into removing religious freedom from the broader human rights report; but I also have observed during the three-and-a-half years of the Obama administration that the issue of religious freedom has been distinctly downplayed," Farr said
Currently a visiting associate professor of religion and world affairs in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Farr directs the program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy and the Project on Religious Freedom at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown.