"The freedom to worship is so central to America's character that we tend to take it personally when that freedom is denied to others. Our country was a leading voice on behalf of the Jewish refusniks in the Soviet Union. Americans joined in common cause with Catholics and Protestants who prayed in secret behind the Iron Curtain. America has stood with Muslims seeking to freely practice their beliefs in places such as Burma and China."
--President George W. Bush, June 27, 2007
Our founding fathers established religious liberty as the cornerstone of America's constitutional system by enshrining it in the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights. Many of our nation's early settlers fled religious persecution to come to America; hence they vividly understood the importance of religious freedom.
Hanging over one of the main entrances to the U.S. Department of State is a mural that vividly captures this commitment. The 50-by-12 foot painting by Kindred McLeary represents the freedoms of worship, speech, assembly, and the press (a portion of the mural is highlighted on the cover of this year's Report materials). The mural was completed in 1942 at the height of one of the most challenging periods in the history of our country. The mural serves today as a potent reminder that, even at times of great national challenge and threat, the heart of our foreign policy encompasses the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms, starting with freedom of worship.
The United States is not alone in this commitment to religious freedom. The international community has repeatedly declared that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. Such declarations can be found in Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16 of the Vienna Concluding Document of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Article 12 of the American Declaration of Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and Article 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Council of Europe.
The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is particularly noteworthy, as it made binding the aspirational rights highlighted in the Universal Declaration. Article 18 declares, "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching." Article 18 of the Covenant goes on to state that "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice."
Unfortunately, as individuals and communities struggle for religious freedom many governments ignore their international obligations. In too many countries, governments refuse to recognize and protect religious freedom, and millions suffer as a result. In some cases, religious believers are imprisoned or physically abused, simply for the courage of their convictions. In others, they are denied the freedom to choose their faith or talk about it openly. One contemporary example of a threat to this freedom is a trend of new laws that, ironically, in the name of tolerance, bars discussion of varied religious viewpoints within a religion or between varying belief systems.
In response to these and other threats to free religious practice, the U.S. Congress in 1998 passed the International Religious Freedom Act. The Act reaffirmed that it is the policy of the United States to "condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion." Most importantly, the Act declares the United States will stand for liberty and stand with the persecuted.
The Act established the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF Office) in the U.S. Department of State and mandated the publication of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This Report covers the entire world and is the most comprehensive catalogue of both religious freedom abuses and of improvements with respect to this fundamental right. The final product represents countless hours of investigation, documentation, and analysis by U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and by IRF Office staff in Washington. Because of this meticulous work and its broad coverage, the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is read by both the powerful and the powerless, by the victims of religious persecution and by those with the ability to remedy such abuse.
The International Religious Freedom Act also mandated the creation of an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who acts as principal adviser to both the President and the Secretary of State on advancing religious freedom worldwide. The Ambassador's role, supported by the IRF Office and in concert with other U.S. officials, is to provide a voice for the voiceless and the oppressed. I and my staff engage governments, be they ally or adversary, to raise concerns across the full range of religious freedom violations. We also work within our government to help ensure U.S. foreign policy reflects our country's historic commitment to religious freedom.
Thankfully, our nation and the Department of State are led by individuals with a deep commitment to this issue. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have done much to promote religious freedom around the world. The Congress has also been a steadfast ally in highlighting abuses and encouraging improvements in many nations. Non-governmental organizations and religious groups are also valued partners in our work. This ninth edition of the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is a testament to the commitment of our leaders and citizens to this issue.
The Annual Report on International Religious Freedom is a natural outgrowth of our country's history and a current reflection of our values. As Secretary of State Rice has said, "We are mindful that too many people of faith can only whisper to God in the silent sanctuaries of their conscience, because they fear persecution for their religious beliefs." She concludes, "Government simply has no right to stand between the individual and the Almighty."
Great strides have been made to protect religious freedoms, both in the United States and around the world. Sadly, however, too many individuals are unable to exercise their religious liberties and suffer, sometimes under great duress and violence, for their faith. It is this knowledge that drives our work on this Annual Report and that inspires our dedication to work towards the day when all persons enjoy this cherished human right.
John V. Hanford III, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom