President Obama gave an obligatory sentence or two to religious freedom during his State of the Union address Tuesday. It wasn’t nearly enough.
He deplored the “anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world.” He criticized the “offensive stereotypes of Muslims — the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace.” And he quoted the Pope, although in a context that had less to do with religious freedom than with diplomacy.
Altogether, these took two paragraphs in a long speech, and they were capped by the first-ever condemnation of transgender discrimination in a State of the Union, which grabbed all the media attention.
Also, it was all wrapped in the unconvincing message that things are going well in foreign arenas.
In truth, religious intolerance and persecution is an
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enormous threat to the United States and other Western nations, just as it is ravaging the Middle East and parts of Africa. It deserves to be Washington’s highest priority.
One of the president’s most important moves during 2014 was the appointment of a new ambassador at-large for religious freedom. And while Rabbi David Saperstein’s politics may have given some people concern in Washington, his appointment and Senate confirmation sent a message to the world that the U.S. still considers religious freedom to be important.
However, it’s fair to ask where Saperstein has been lately. True, he was confirmed barely one month ago, but he could be seeking to grab the spotlight on a number of important issues, not the least of which was the deadly terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
As many pundits have correctly noted, this attack was indeed a challenge to the notion of the freedoms of speech and the press. However, it also was a symptom of the profound rejection of religious freedom by its extremist perpetrators. And that rejection is disturbingly reinforced by the official policies of some of the United States’ important allies. Perhaps chief among these is Pakistan.
Pakistan is in the spotlight right now because a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, has been sentenced to death for the crime of blasphemy. In 2009, she got into a dispute with a Muslim woman over whether she was worthy to carry a water bowl. Allegedly, she insulted the prophet Mohammed during this altercation. That was enough for a court to sentence her to die.
While she waits on death row, her “crime” has continued to ripple deadly consequences. In 2011, Pakistan’s minister for minority affairs, also a Christian, was murdered by the Taliban in Islamabad for speaking out publicly against Bibi’s sentence. Also that year, the governor of the eastern province of Punjab was similarly murdered for showing sympathy for her.
Pakistan is one of several nations identified by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a place where religious persecution is “systematic, ongoing and egregious.” Bibi’s case is just one example of rampant crimes in the region, particularly against Christians. A watch list published by the Christian non-profit group Open Doors USA said more Christians lived in fear of their lives in 2014 than at any time in memory.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report urges the president, secretary of state and members of Congress to demonstrate “continuous, high-level interest” concerning religious freedom, and to develop a strategy.
Unfortunately, during a recent trip to Pakistan, Secretary of State John Kerry did not raise concerns about Bibi, blasphemy laws or any other matters of religious persecution. A report on dailysignal.com said he instead focused on the fight against terrorism.
However, that fight cannot be won decisively until troubled nations begin to understand and honor fundamental notions of religious liberty.
As the religious freedom commission’s annual report said, this freedom “enables people to follow what their conscience dictates. … People are entitled to religious freedom by virtue of their humanity.”
It would have been nice to hear similar words from the president on Tuesday, but it is essential for the United States to make such statements an ongoing and persistent priority in its dealings with foreign leaders. As France has seen, this intolerance does not confine itself abroad.