Washington — Protecting religious freedom in countries around the world promotes peace, stability and security for the international community and remains a fundamental concern of the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the rollout of the State Department’s 14th annual International Religious Freedom Report.
“Religious freedom is both an essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies,” Clinton said July 30 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s been statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability, and it creates a climate in which people from different religions can move beyond distrust and work together to solve their shared problems.”
Clinton said President Obama’s administration has elevated religious freedom as a diplomatic priority.
“Together with governments, international organizations and civil society, we have worked to shape and implement United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 1618, which seeks to protect people under attack or discriminated against because of their faith,” the secretary said.
She called on countries around the world to join in a global effort to promote religious tolerance and protect religious freedom, saying that governments “have solemn obligations to protect the human rights of all citizens, no matter what religions they believe or don’t believe.”
Clinton said the State Department’s latest report comes as an urgent reminder that religious freedom is shrinking around the world.
“More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom,” she said. “When it comes to this human right … the world is sliding backwards.”
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook introduced the report, which reviews the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories, earlier in the day at the State Department.
She said the document “details increasing intolerance against a range of religious communities,” such as a rise in anti-Semitism in several countries, demonstrated by increased attacks on adults and children as well as the desecration of cemeteries.
Other troubling trends during the year included a number of governments detaining and imprisoning individuals because of their religious beliefs. Some countries used blasphemy and apostasy laws to curb religious freedom, Cook said, and others misused laws to restrict the freedoms of religion, expression and assembly.
Cook said governments limited citizens’ right to wear or not to wear religious attire, as some countries passed laws to ban attire covering the face while others forced women to cover themselves entirely.
She said many governments used registration laws to restrict the rights of religious communities, including rigid rules making it impossible for groups to own property or to receive state financial support.
“This type of favoritism by governments can empower societal abuse of religious minorities,” the ambassador said.
She said the report shows that while the challenges of religious intolerance are daunting, change is possible.
“It takes all of us — governments, faith communities, civil societies — working together to ensure that all people have the right to believe or not to believe,” Cook said. “Each of us has a role to play in promoting religious freedom.”
The ambassador celebrated the State Department’s launch of the 2012 Hours Against Hate campaign, which aims to promote respect regardless of religion, culture, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
The department’s latest religious freedom report said the campaign calls upon young people “to volunteer their time to assist persons from other communities — a Jew for a Muslim charity, a man for a women’s shelter, a Muslim for a Jewish clinic, a Christian for a Baha’i food pantry.” It added that the campaign generated so much interest and so many hours of volunteer time that it has now been endorsed as one of the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee’s tolerance campaigns for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
The annual report calls attention to steps taken to improve religious freedom and promote tolerance while also shining a spotlight on violations of religious freedom.
The document is submitted each year to Congress in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The latest edition catalogs major developments in religious freedom and tolerance around the world from January to December 2011.