'We're Not Actually Advancing Religious Freedom'
World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security
Religious-liberty wonk Thomas Farr is calling for some big changes. A longtime diplomat, Farr also served in the U.S. State Department under the last two ambassadors at large for religious freedom. In his new book, World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty is Vital to American National Security, and in a report he coauthored with Dennis Hoover, he looks at the execution of the 10-year-old International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and finds it lacking. U.S. policy has hardly improved religious freedom abroad, he says.
Kurt Donnelly, director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, calls Farr's report a "valuable contribution."
"In line with some of Farr and Hoover's recommendations, we have begun making better use of the tools of traditional diplomacy, and we are doing more with the tools of public diplomacy and with targeted assistance programs," Donnelly says.
What did Obama's remarks in Turkey tell you about his administration's approach to religious freedom? And what is the meaning of him pressing for Halki seminary to be reopened?
No speech by a President tells you everything you need to know about policy — or even most of what you need to know. Because speeches need to be followed by actions.
In 2002, Bush gave a fantastic speech in China. The content on religious freedom was excellent. At the time, I thought, this is money in the bank! What I hadn't accounted for was that there were very few tentacles between what the President had said in that speech and what the State Department and other officials were prepared to do on the issue of religious freedom in China.
On balance, I was impressed with [Obama's speech to the Turkish Parliament]. Halki seminary has been a staple of our human rights discussions with the Turks, going back to Ronald Reagan and probably Jimmy Carter. Usually it's in private, and to mention it before the Turkish Parliament in the way he did was pretty good. He indicated that this isn't the sole content of this problem of religious freedom in Turkey. If the Turks began to take action on this, it would be a very important sign.
I thought his Halki seminary comments were pretty good, along some of the other things [Obama] said about free expression and freedom of religion. If they are a sign of his administration and his State Department beginning to take very seriously this religion-state issue in Turkey, it's a good sign. But if it's a rhetorical flourish that disappears without further adieu, then that's standard practice, and not just for this administration.
You say in the report that U.S. religious freedom advocacy is ineffective.
The function of advancing religious freedom has never — and I say somewhat surprisingly [not] under the Bush administration — never been integrated into the broader foreign policy of the United States. This whole [IRFA] thing was a backwater, it was compartmentalized.
Both ambassadors, [Robert] Seiple and [John] Hanford, did some very good things. Because of their personal persistence, they both got people out of jail. I would guess that over ten years there are hundreds of people who are walking free because of their efforts.
But the rule is that we're not actually advancing religious freedom. We're cursing the darkness of persecution.