Friday, May 05, 2006

Religious Liberty and the Bush Administration

About a year ago I was at a meeting in Washington State where a representative from another mission organization stated emphatically that the Bush administration has made a significant impact on the advancement of religious liberty around the world. He suggested that persecutors were now fearful of attacking Christians for fear of incurring American wrath.

What rubbish! When I suggested as much to this fellow the following day, he swore at me and suggested that I was clueless.

The fact is, there is no evidence at all to support this fellow's assertion. He isn't alone in it either. Many believe that since George Bush is an unapologetic evangelical that he has been active in protecting persecuted Christians around the world. I refer especially to the Internet rumour that keeps making its rounds about an Uzbek pastor who allegedly spoke up at a national pastors convention in San Diego and shared how there was far more persecution in Uzbekistan under Clinton than Bush and that things had improved dramatically for Christians since Bush was elected president. As notes, the story is completely unproven. From our observation here at VOMC, the story actually flies in the face of reality; the exact opposite has been true in Uzbekistan. There has been a dramatic increase in persecution in Uzbekistan in recent years.

Friends of mine in the States suggest that President Bush does far more than what would be apparent behind the scenes. Perhaps that is so, but I contend that such support needs to be seen in order to be effective. The recent recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to the U.S. president seem to suggest as much. Note the comments regarding Afghanistan and Iraq:

"The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that freedom of conscience goes to the heart of our foreign policy goals. In these two countries, where the United States is directly engaged in political reconstruction, the universal right to religious freedom is imperiled. Only two months ago, a man faced execution in Afghanistan for exercising his right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Charged with the "crime" of changing his religion, the case against him was eventually dismissed with your urging, but concerns about his personal safety meant that he could no longer stay in Afghanistan. A few months before, an Afghan journalist who is also a Muslim scholar was imprisoned and threatened with death after being found guilty of blasphemy. His purported "crime" was to question the strict interpretation of some tenets of the majority religion in Afghanistan. In Iraq, an escalation in the level of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims threatens to halt political reconstruction. Targets of religiously motivated attacks also include secular Muslims, non-Muslim minorities, and women. The result is that many non-Muslim minorities are leaving Iraq, an exodus that may mean the end of the presence in Iraq of ancient Christian and other communities that have lived on those same lands for 2,000 years.

The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq serve to underscore the precarious state of this fundamental freedom, which the President's National Security Strategy refers to as the "first freedom," in so many countries around the world today. "

Note, too, the USCIRF comments regarding Saudi Arabia:

"In September 2005, one year after the designation of Saudi Arabia, you approved a temporary 180-day waiver of further action, following the CPC designation, to allow for continued diplomatic discussions with the Saudi government and "to further the purposes of the International Religious Freedom Act." The waiver expired in late March 2006. As of the date of this letter, no action with regard to Saudi Arabia has been announced by the U.S. government. Given the extent of religious freedom violations in Saudi Arabia, the Commission urges you to consult with Congress and other parts of the U.S. government, including the Commission, during your discussions with the Saudis, and to make any agreement reached with the Saudi government public in the interest of the accountability that results from transparency. Since religious freedom conditions in Saudi Arabia have not substantially improved in the last year, the U.S. government must not hesitate in taking aggressive action which meets the requirements of IRFA to demonstrate that it will not disregard the persistent and egregious religious freedom violations committed by the Saudi government."

These are gentle reminders that President Bush needs to not only talk the talk of promoting religious liberty but walk the walk. I truly hope he listens.

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