Groups Urge Obama to Step Up Religious Freedom Advocacy

WASHINGTON – Religious freedom groups are urging the U.S. State Department and President Barack Obama's Administration to make new efforts to identify the worst violators of religious freedoms and up international advocacy after the release of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton released the annual report to the press detailing the international religious climate during the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010.

Of the countries mentioned in the report, unsurprisingly, tensions remained high in Middle Eastern countries as well as in China and Burma.

"We do this because we believe that religious freedom is both a fundamental human right and an essential element to any stable, peaceful, thriving society," declared Clinton.

However, many groups state the reports, while good, are not enough.

Christian anti-persecution group Open Doors USA's Advocacy director, Lindsay Vessey, praises the State Department for the release of the religious report.

"We're the only country in the world that is monitoring religious freedom this extensively. To be able to publish a report every year on every country in the world except for the U.S. is really incredible," she stated.

But she also noted that the Obama administration does not seem to be making any new efforts to advance religious freedom, including designating the countries of particular concern.

The designations are a crucial step in pushing international governments, through efforts such as diplomatic agreements and sanctions, to institute fundamental religious rights to all.

Vessey is urging the state department to act quickly in deciding the designees. "The designations were last made in January 2009. That means they're going to expire in January 2011," she explained.

The administration also needs to nominate an ambassador for international religious freedom, Vessey added.

"If you have your office for international religious freedom yet you don't have your ambassador for international religious freedom who is the person tasked with carrying out these diplomatic efforts and overseeing the office, I think that sends a signal that this issue is not that important," she explained.

A confirmation hearing was held Wednesday to question the nominee for ambassador, Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City. The process, however, has not yet been completed.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging the state department to move forward with the confirmation process and to also take a hard stance on religious freedom in its foreign policy.

"We urge the State Department to follow up with vigorous U.S. diplomatic activity, urging improvements in respect for this fundamental human right," Leonard Leo, the commission chairman, said in a statement.

Several countries were mentioned in the report have deepening tensions between state-sanctioned religions and religious minorities. Tensions are particularly growing against Christian populations in Muslim countries.

For example, the Egyptian government does not recognize Christianity as an official non-Muslim religious minority. As a result, churches face continual personal and collective discrimination. Muslim converts to Christianity are also arrested, detained and harassed.

In Pakistan, organized violence against Christians in Gojra and Punjab are outlined in the report, along with discriminatory use of the penal codes and blasphemy laws such as in the case of Asia Noreen, a Christian woman arrested and sentenced to death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as her savior.

The report also recognizes terrorist attacks in Iraq, but notes an overall decrease in the level of violence due to "the government be[coming] increasingly successful in restoring security in a generally non-sectarian manner throughout the country."

The report appears to be at odds with the news of ongoing persecution against the Assyrian Christian population and church bombings. Most recently, on Tuesday, a Christian man and his six-year-old daughter were killed in a car bomb explosion in the Iraqi Northern city of Mosul. According to CNN reports, Mosul is home to a large Christian population.

Prior to that, extremists opened fire and later detonated suicide vests in Our Lady of Salvation, Baghdad's largest Catholic Church, on Oct. 31. The latest figures show that 68 people were killed in that attack. Four Catholic priests are among the dead.

Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, says Iraqi Christians are "a soft target" because of their adherence to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

"Christians take the line of Jesus to forgive. They don't have any militias fighting for their rights," he explained in a taped statement.

Moeller calls on the United States to use their influence to lift up the case of Iraqi Christians. "The United States still has a great deal of influence on what happens in Iraq … we can use our voice to bring more pressure on the Iraq government to stand up for these Christians," proclaimed Moeller.

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