Religious freedom is under attack around the world, from religious extremists who consider any deviation from their own beliefs as sufficient justification for violence to governments who fall short of their obligations to protect the rights of all their citizens. In the face of these threats, the United States and others face the challenge of how best to protect and promote religious liberty around the world. This task is particularly important at a time when many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are entering periods of political transition and confronting new questions about the place of religion in politics.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the status of religious freedom around the world in remarks at the Carnegie Endowment to mark the release of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2011. Carnegie President Jessica Mathews moderated.

The Case for Freedom of Religion

  • Universal Rights: Religious freedom is a fundamental human right key to the exercise of other rights. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Clinton argued that these rights give lives meaning and dignity and constitute the birthright of every human being. Freedom of religion is not just about religion; it also about ensuring the right of all people to think what they want and to say what they think.
  • Democracy: Religious freedom is linked to both economic development and democracy. When people are treated equally under the law, it increases social unity and trust in democratic institutions, Clinton explained. Although some leaders claim that they do not protect religious liberty because the majority of their population does not support it—there is a large difference between democracy and the tyranny of the majority.
  • Social Cohesion and Security: All religions have an interest in expanding religious freedom because it protects everyone’s rights and promotes social cohesion and security, Clinton said. Lack of religious freedom can alienate citizens from leaders and each other. It can lead to despair and frustration among minorities and feelings of threat among majorities. Both of these can create the conditions for extremism. Religious freedom is a safety valve which allows everyone to feel they can participate constructively in society.

The Current Global Context

Religious freedom is under threat around the world and governments have a responsibility to do more to stand up for the rights of all their people, said Clinton.

  • Sliding Backward: More than a billion people live in countries that systematically suppress freedom of religion, Clinton said. In some countries people can be sentenced to death for belonging to the wrong religion or for perceived blasphemy. Other governments give the illusion of freedom by creating official state-sanctioned religions, but they punish those who go outside these state-sponsored organizations.
  • Religious Freedom in Political Transitions: Countries in the middle of periods of political transition are wrestling with how and whether to protect religious freedom. This is an issue from Tunisia to Burma and many places in between, Clinton said. Democratic transitions are challenging for all countries, but it is very important for leaders to send a clear message about the importance of protecting diversity within their countries and standing up for the rights of all citizens. It is also critical to look beyond elections to ensure new governments protect the independence of the press, freedom of religion, and other key pillars of democracy. Clinton pointed to positive developments in Libya, where the new government has decided not to enforce some of Qaddafi’s laws restricting religious freedom and the Libyan Supreme Court recently overturned a law banning speech deemed offensive to Islam.
  • The Case of Egypt: Egypt is grappling with the challenge of religious freedom and it is still unclear where it is headed, Clinton said. President Morsi has pledged in public and in private that he will be the president of all Egyptians and will put women and Christians in leadership positions. Christians remain anxious, however, and want to know whether an Islamist government will stand up for non-Muslims. She added that the United States is prepared to work with leaders chosen by the Egyptian people, but the U.S.-Egyptian relationship will depend on that leadership’s respect for human rights. Progress on religious freedom will further depend on how ordinary Egyptians treat each other and whether the religious unity seen in Tahrir Square can continue, she added.

U.S. Support for Freedom of Religion

Clinton expressed strong U.S. support for efforts to enhance freedom of religion and related values both domestically and internationally.

  • Religious Liberty at Home: The United States was founded by people fleeing religious persecution and today the United States is a place where everyone can practice their faith without fear, she said. Religion is very important to the vast majority of Americans and people of all faiths and no faiths live together peacefully. All three branches of government have worked to uphold the constitution and not favor one religion over another. This requires constant effort, Clinton asserted, and debate about religious freedom in America is ongoing.
  • Religious Freedom in Foreign Policy: Religious freedom is a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy and the Obama administration has elevated it as a priority, Clinton asserted. The United States believes that religious leaders and individuals have responsibilities to promote peace and respect, but governments have a special obligation to protect the human rights of all their citizens. Too many governments see religious liberty as a low priority, but issues of religious freedom are at the heart of security and stability in many countries, Clinton said.
  • Administration Action: The recently released International Religious Freedom Report catalogues official and societal restrictions on religious freedom and designates countries of particular concern, Clinton said. It sends a signal to the worst offenders that the world is watching—and helps the United States to target its advocacy.