Just two blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, is a memorial to Oscar Straus, one of the premier U.S. statesmen of the early twentieth century. Two statues represent what Straus cherished most about this country—our high esteem for enterprise, on the one hand, and our commitment to freedom of religion on the other. At the base of the monument to religious freedom—a woman, representing "Justice," with her arm resting on the Ten Commandments—the inscription reads: "Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right."
What Straus saw in this nation, and what those who sought to honor his life memorialized, were the modern manifestations of themes intertwined throughout America's history. In the seventeenth century, it was men and women seeking to escape religious persecution who, at the same time, laid the foundation for our nation's prosperity through their determination and perseverance. In the eighteenth century, it was Thomas Jefferson, a leader determined to see his country benefit from the latest scientific advances, who also drafted the first law protecting religious freedom in America. "No man shall be compelled," Jefferson wrote, to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion."
In the nineteenth century, with a civil war looming, it was President James Buchanan who expressed his great fear that such a war might diminish America's role in the advancement of civil and religious liberty throughout the world. And it was President Ulysses Grant, contemplating the difficult task of rebuilding our nation after that devastating war, who highlighted freedom of religion, along with security of property, as essential to ensuring "the greatest good to the greatest number."
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, citizens of the United States continue to cherish our religious liberty as much as we do our right to pursue economic well-being. President George W. Bush has urged us to be mindful of the deep roots of this basic right in our society. "Our Founding Fathers," he said, "knew the importance of freedom of religion to a stable and lasting Union. Our Constitution protects individuals' rights to worship as they choose. Today, we continue to welcome the important contributions of people of faith in our society. We reject religious bigotry in every form, striving for a society that honors the life and faith of every person. As we maintain the vitality of a pluralistic society, we work to ensure equal treatment of faith-based organizations and people of faith."
America's resolve to champion the cause of religious freedom around the world is fueled by our history, but it is founded on that "inherent right" which Oscar Straus so valued. Today, we find this fundamental freedom enshrined in various international covenants, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of that foundational United Nations document states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religious or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." In President Bush's words, religious freedom "is the first freedom of the human soul -- the right to speak the words that God places in our mouths. We must stand for that freedom in our country. We must speak for that freedom in the world." The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is intended to do just that.
A voice on behalf of religious freedom is necessary today because many governments only pay lip service to their responsibilities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other agreements. Repressive governments are not the only threat to religious liberty in our world, however. So, too, are violent extremists, one of our generation's principal adversaries in the continuing struggle for freedom. Even as we stand together with those who rightly demand religious freedom, we must stand firmly against those whose ideologies of hate act as impediments to human liberty and democracy.
The state of religious freedom is not only important in its own right, but is also an indicator of the level of tolerance and stability in the greater society. The pursuit of religious liberty supports other freedoms, including speech, assembly, and conscience. When the cause of religious freedom is furthered, so is the pursuit of democracy. The fact that our country's history evidences a continued deepening and broadening of our core commitment to religious freedom spurs us to protect what we have won and to encourage other governments to meet a high standard, as well. Our record is not perfect. However, our imperfections cannot serve as an excuse to back down from the challenge of making this universal right real for all humankind. "As the United States advances the cause of liberty," President Bush has said, "we remember that freedom is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to each man and woman in this world. This truth drives our efforts to help people everywhere achieve freedom of religion and establish a better, brighter and more peaceful future for all."
The Annual Report
This annual report, mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, is the product of a year-round effort by hundreds of Foreign Service and Civil Service officers in the Department of State and U.S. missions abroad. Our human rights officers overseas and the staff of the Office of International Religious Freedom, supported by their colleagues in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and in regional bureaus of the State Department, deserve particular credit for their dedication in bringing this report to fruition.
The purpose of this report is to document the actions of governments—those that repress religious expression, persecute innocent believers, or tolerate violence against religious minorities, as well as those that respect, protect, and promote religious freedom. For each country, the report details the legal situation, cultural context, and relevant policies, and describes efforts taken by the U.S. Government to oppose religious persecution and promote religious freedom.
The sad truth which this report exposes is that many millions of religious believers continue to suffer for the belief or practice of their faith, and many governments refuse to recognize or protect this right. That so many endure beatings, torture, imprisonment, and even death is a testament to the resilience of faith. It is our hope that, by documenting their plight, this report will serve both as a testament to the courage of those who suffer, and as a challenge to those of us throughout the world who stand for democracy and freedom. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice poignantly stated earlier this year, "We on the right side of freedom's divide have an obligation to help those unlucky enough to have been born on the wrong side of that divide."
The Office of International Religious Freedom
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom serves as principal advisor to the President and the Secretary of State on advancing religious freedom worldwide. Under their direction, the Office of International Religious Freedom carries out U.S. policy on religious freedom, working closely with our colleagues in the Department of State, other U.S. Government agencies, and U.S. missions overseas in order to maximize the range of diplomatic tools brought to bear on problems of religious freedom. Through formal and informal bilateral negotiations with foreign governments, participation in multilateral fora such as the United Nations and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, cooperation with human rights and faith-based NGOs, and meetings with victims of abuse, we develop and carry out strategies to address persecution wherever it is found.
As we issue this seventh edition of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, I wish to express appreciation for the strong and vigilant leadership provided by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice on this issue, as well as for the bipartisan support which Congress has provided. We all owe a debt of gratitude, as well, to so many who work in non-governmental organizations on behalf of the oppressed. President Ronald Reagan once said that, "Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged." Even as we look to a future in which all will enjoy true religious freedom, our work together honors those around the globe who, like Oscar Straus and President Reagan before them, understand the full meaning of this inherent right.
John V. Hanford III, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom