International religious freedom observers mostly praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's opposition to anti-defamation policies because such restrictions would limit free speech.
The United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote soon on a pending anti-defamation resolution sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies that would restrict freedom of expression and the freedom of religion," Clinton said at a press conference on Monday. "I strongly disagree."
"The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions," Clinton said. "These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."
Experts consider the UN anti-defamation effort mostly a reaction to the 2005 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper that depicted the prophet Muhammad. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, is lobbying against the resolution this week because he fears people could be criminalized for converting from Islam or speaking against Islamic teachings.
"The United States is making an unequivocal statement while defining the rights of individuals versus religious beliefs," Moeller said. "You cannot provide a religious belief system the same level of protection that you do for a human."
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute, expressed concern over another Human Rights Council resolution on freedom of opinion and expression passed in early October: "[The council] expresses its concern that incidents of racial and religious intolerance, discrimination and related violence, as well as of negative racial and religious stereotyping continue to rise around the world … and urges States to take effective measures, consistent with their obligations under international human rights law, to address and combat such incidents."
The resolution, proposed by the United States and Egypt, does not include the term "defamation of religion," but Shea worries that such language could criminalize preaching that another religion is false.
"They're introducing language about religious hatred or negative religious stereotyping that is quite new and immediately seized upon by some of the restrictive governments in the world," Shea said.
Shea welcomed Clinton's Monday speech, but wonders why the administration has not appointed an ambassador of international religious freedom.
"Especially when you look at the different czars and envoys that have been appointed in all areas, it doesn't signal religious freedom as a priority," Shea said. "Hillary Clinton spends a few minutes on a press conference, but who's following this day in and day out?"
In her speech on Monday, Clinton said that the best antidote to intolerance is a combination of legal protections against discrimination and hate crimes, government outreach to minority religious groups, and defense of freedom of both religion and expression.
Religious Freedom Offenders
Clinton made her remarks while releasing the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom, which highlighted several countries "where violations of religious freedom have been noteworthy" over the last year: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Eritrea, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Laos, Malaysia, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen.
But in some of those countries have also seen positive developments, the report said. Following Clinton's remarks, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner used China as one example.
"One of the encouraging things to me in China is that there is a growing, rapidly growing Christian community," Posner said. "A percentage, but not a majority, are in churches recognized by the state. But somewhere between 50 and 90 million people practice Christianity in unrecognized churches that are not registered in many cases. And so what we're trying to do is encourage the Chinese Government to recognize and allow people of faith, of various faiths, to practice."
Thomas Farr, the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, praised Clinton's remarks and the report but called for more policy specifics.
"The report is excellent in identification of the problem. Where it's uneven and often quite weak is in describing U.S. policy in solving those problems," Farr said. "For example, we should be working with the Chinese not only to pressure them to stop persecution, but advancing religious freedom through the academy, the law—the mechanisms that are important to the Chinese."
Clinton's speech also highlighted interfaith efforts, such as Jordan's dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The report highlighted Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Jordan where he stressed peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
She also praised faith-based organizations in the United States.
"Religion provides a cornerstone for every healthy society," Clinton said. "It empowers faith-based service. It fosters tolerance and respect among different communities, and allows nations that uphold it to become more stable, secure and prosperous."
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Other coverage of Clinton's remarks include:
Clinton speaks against anti-defamation laws | Islamic countries seek to restrict freedom to criticize religions (Washington Post, October 27, 2009)
US hits out at bid to bar religious defamation | The Obama administration on Monday came out strongly against efforts by Islamic nations to bar the defamation of religions, saying the moves would restrict free speech. (Associated Press, October 27, 2009)
U.S. hits effort on religious speech | 'Defamation' ban proposed (Washington Times, October 27, 2009)