Archive - April 2015

USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report
State Department Discovers Religion, 2015 QDDR
Need for “Sufficiently Profound Responses” to Religion-Related Violence
Calvin and the Caliphate
Pope Francis and the Catholic Church’s History with the Armenian Genocide
Cuba to Explode?
The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan
Passover and the First Freedom
A Dissident Comes to Notre Dame
Update on Raif Badawi

USCIRF’s 2015 Annual Report

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which I serve, released its 2015 annual report today, along with an introductory video. As anyone following the news this part year knows, the state of religious freedom in the world is not good. It is worth thinking carefully about what can be done (and what can be done by the US in particular) about this tragic state of affairs, and the report offers specific recommendations for US policy.

As the press release notes:

USCIRF, in its role as an independent U.S. federal government advisory body, recommends that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, where  particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.  These countries are:

Central African Republic (first time recommendation)









USCIRF also recommends that the State Department redesignate as CPCs the following nine countries and take additional actions to promote religious freedom:





North Korea

Saudi Arabia





Along with recommending CPC designations, USCIRF also places 10 countries on its 2015 “Tier 2” list, a Commission designation for governments that engage in or tolerate violations that are serious but not CPC-level.   USCIRF urges increased U.S. government attention to the following countries:












The USCIRF Report also highlights religious freedom concerns in countries that do not meet Tier 1 (CPC) or Tier 2 thresholds, but should also be the focus of concern.  These countries are:







Sri Lanka

State Department Discovers Religion, 2015 QDDR

After decades of viewing religion as mostly irrelevant to international relations, the Department of State continues to open a new chapter of recognizing that religious faith is integral to the lives of vast portions of the planet’s human population.

A hopeful sign of this is that considering religion and engaging religious actors made it into the 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), issued this week by the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Engagement of religious actors is included as one way to pursue the QDDR’s Strategic Priorities, including “Preventing and Mitigating Conflict and Violent Extremism” and “Promoting Resilient, Open, Democratic Societies.”

To expand the capacity of the Department of State and USAID “to promote democracy, governmental accountability, and respect for human rights,” the QDDR sets forth this task (p. 33):

Assess religious dynamics and continue to engage religious actors and institutions. Recognizing the relevance of religion to our diplomacy and development objectives, the White House issued the 2013 National Strategy on Integrating Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement into U.S. Foreign Policy. This strategy calls for engaging religious actors and institutions to promote development, advance pluralism and human rights, and mitigate violent conflict. Every overseas post and domestic bureau will seek opportunities to engage religious leaders.


Need for “Sufficiently Profound Responses” to Religion-Related Violence

In his 2015 annual report to the United Nations (A/HCR/28/66), Heiner Bielefeltd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, focuses on “Preventing violence committed in the name of religion.” He outlines what “sufficiently profound responses” to this grave problem should include.

When Bielefeldt came to the United Nations, apparently he didn’t get the memo explaining that as a U.N. official he should issue lots of bureaucratic blah-blah-blah. Instead, his annual reports have repeatedly been substantive and insightful. The 2015 report is no exception.

Something can be done to reduce religion-related violence, explains Bielefeldt.

His recommendations for states are clear:

Legislation that renders the existence of certain religious communities “illegal” in the country should be revoked.

States should repeal anti-blasphemy laws, anti-conversion laws and any other discriminatory criminal law provisions, including those based on religious laws.

For private citizens and civil society organizations, he emphasizes breaking through cultures of silence. “Silent majority” no more is one of his core recommendations, especially for those in areas with state protections for freedom of speech and cultures of openness who enjoy lower risks than others. Speak out for those who feel they cannot speak for themselves – and do so wisely.

Bielefeldt rejects anemic over-simplifications of religion-related violence. “[P]ublic rejections of violence,” he argues “…should not succumb to the temptation to reduce the issue of violence in the name of religion to mere “misunderstandings” and external abuses. This would amount to an irresponsible trivialization of the problem.”

Instead, he explains, “theologians and religious leaders,” and others too, I would add,

should actually expose themselves to the disturbing fact that perpetrators of violence — or at least some of them — may be convinced to perform an act of service to God when killing fellow humans. Taking seriously these ideas, however bizarre and distorted they may seem, is the precondition for giving sufficiently profound responses. Only by confronting the perverse “attractiveness” of violent religious extremism for some people, including people living in precarious and volatile political circumstances, will it be possible to tackle the various root causes of violence, including polarizing religious interpretations and incitement to religious hatred.

“Violence in the name of religion,” concludes Bielefeldt, “does not “erupt” in analogy to natural catastrophes and it should not be misconstrued as the inevitable result of sectarian hostilities that supposedly originated centuries or millennia ago, thus seemingly lying outside of the scope of the responsibility that different actors have today.”

The actors with responsibility to counter violence in the name of religion are individual citizens including religious leaders, civic and religious organizations, and states – which is to say, all of us can do something to reduce religion-related violence.

Step one: seek greater understanding of this problem. This 2015 report by Bielefledt is a good place to start.

Step two: move beyond simplistic trivializing. Bielefeldt is right to call instead for “sufficiently profound responses.”

Step three: silent no more.

Calvin and the Caliphate

ISIS fighters on parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, January 2014. (Reuters / Yaser Al-Khodor)

I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).

A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.

In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…”  Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church’s History with the Armenian Genocide

This past Sunday, Pope Francis spoke of the Armenian genocide of 1915-1916.  His use of the g-word drew the ire of Turkey, which officially denies that genocide took place and thus withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican in protest. Pope Francis showed bravery in speaking up in this way.  So did the pope at the time of the killings, Benedict XV.  The fascinating story is told here in an interview with German historian Dr. Michael Hesemann that just appeared in Aleteia.

In a new book entitled, The Armenian Genocide [Völkermord an den Armeniern], Hesemann reveals for the first time the content of never-before-published documents on “the greatest crime of World War I,” and how Pope Benedict XV and Vatican diplomacy tried to stop the deportations of the Armenians into the Syrian desert, save the victims and prevent the massacre of an entire people.

In this interview, Hesemann shares his findings, which include evidence of Masonic involvement, and expresses both his admiration for Pope Francis for drawing attention to the genocide of Christians and ethnic minorities, and his disappointment over the absence of the German Ambassador to the Holy See at Sunday’s commemorative Mass.

Cuba to Explode?

A writer who travels regularly to Cuba for humanitarian work reports on a growing sense of unrest in Cuba.  This is taking place while religion grows even as it still faces repression.   This paragraph captures the author’s spirit well:

While Evangelical and some Catholic churches are seeing new growth, Cuban society is disintegrating. Cities are seeing a growth of gangs and chemical addictions. Cuba has the highest rate of divorce in Latin America, and grinding poverty drives thousands of young women into prostitution. A female physician who doubles as a Pentecostal pastor told me that the biggest problem facing Cuba is philosophical—nihilism and relativism, which produce a sense of hopelessness. The result is a birthrate under replacement level. With fewer babies being born, and one of the highest abortion rates in Latin America, Cuba’s population of 11 million is declining.


The battle against Islamic State must include a postwar plan

In Canada’s Globe and Mail a few weeks ago I made the argument that as the battle for Tikrit raged, the world badly needed to break its track record of invasion followed by inaction. Now, Tikrit is taken and the countdown to Mosul is on.

But this is not the battle for Kobani, a city overwhelmed by nearly 400,000 refugees. Mosul is a major city of the Middle East, a city of 1.8 million at its height. Its humanitarian catastrophe has been compared to the Nazi regime in the Second World War. The postwar reconstruction plan we need should be taken from the same playbook. The Middle East needs a Yalta and a Potsdam: a postwar order before the victory march; a plan for how to bring people home.

A post-IS order, in other words, is not the panacea for the Levant. In fact, in an interview, Gen. David Petraeus outlined what he called worse concerns about the region than IS: “I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by – and some guided by – Iran.”

As IS is rolled back by coalition forces – including in some cases Shiite militias – the danger of kidnappings and reprisal killings, mass evictions, and the corrosive abuses that so often follow on the heels of the politics of past evil is real and present.

The problem of what political scientist Daniel Philpott calls unjust peace, and the cycle of violence after mass atrocity, will persist long after a group calling itself IS is pushed back and defeated.

That problem is as much about how the militaries and militias conduct themselves in the now-and upcoming campaign to retake ISIS-controlled Iraq as when and what comes next. As coalition forces move forward, will the international community prove complicit in the kind of reprisal and revenge killings to come? Or is there a role for countries like Canada, not merely in the form of boots on the ground, but as partners in rebuilding a just peace that, even in the merest act of our presence, may prevent the worst of post-war reprisals?

Any just peace needs a plan of return, one which includes not only security, governance, and economic development, but reconciliation. We need a plan for people to come back to their homes, to their villages, safely, reclaim ownership, and somehow restore a sense of normalcy to life.

Christians, Yezidis, and – it must be remembered – an overwhelming number of Muslims have suffered terrible persecution under IS. The blood of martyrs soaks this region. Sadness saturates the soul. IS can and will be beaten, but we need to know what comes next. We need a practical plan to take us beyond the trauma. And we need that plan taking shape now, as part of, not secondary thought to, counter-invasion.

The counter-invasion may come as a rescue, but the larger part is a restoration. The harder part is the return. The region itself needs to take leadership on security and economic development, and the world needs to anticipate a better future. In the heart of Europe’s darkest hour the Allies planned an audacious postwar plan on the back of presumed victory. The Levant badly needs that audacity today.

Passover and the First Freedom

This week, Jews the world over celebrate the holiday of Passover. There’s a curious detail in the Passover story, the story of the Exodus, that is largely overlooked though it is well noticed by the rabbinic commentators. Before Moses makes his famous demand of Pharaoh—“let my people go”—he requests that Pharaoh grant the Israelites a three-day sojourn in the wilderness to go worship God. This is a strange request; we, the readers, know that God intends to take His people out of Egypt for good, not just for three days. Is Moses lying? If so, Pharaoh is wise to his trick because Pharaoh suggests that the men go on the prayer retreat and leave the women and children behind, thus ensuring the men will return. And even if Pharaoh did let them all go, to where exactly would they escape? Pharaoh could simply send his army to round them up, as he attempted during the real Exodus. Only a great and completely unanticipated miracle prevented the runaway slaves from being trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. So why the request (what good could it do), and why the refusal (what harm could it do)?

In America, we sometimes refer to religious freedom as the “first freedom.” For one thing, religious freedom is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights. But religious freedom is the first freedom in a deeper sense as well. The idea of religious freedom is where we first learn, conceptually and perhaps historically as well, the in-principle limits on the power of the state. The commands of a higher power mark out a realm of existence that is beyond the authority of the state. The state cannot rightly dictate how to act with respect to those obligations, nor can the state countermand them. Religious freedom teaches us that our lives never belong wholly to the state. Once we establish that fact, we open the door to consideration of the full panoply of human rights and of the limits of the state. For Pharaoh to acquiesce in Moses’s request for three days of worship in the wilderness would be to acknowledge that the Israelites were not ultimately subjects of the Egyptian god-king but of the transcendent God-King.

Though I am not an historian, I imagine that this is a significant feature of the enormous revolution that the Bible brought to the world. In the pagan world, a world in which the gods were the gods of the city, the state claimed everything for itself. To oppose the political order or the ruler was sacrilege. And then there came a time to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s but also to render unto God what was God’s. We would do well in our own time to remember the centrality of religious freedom not just for its own sake but also for its role in undergirding all of our rights.

A Dissident Comes to Notre Dame

In fall 2003, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame hosted a talk by Norwegian scholar and peace activist Johan Galtung.  Famous for founding the discipline of peace studies, Galtung has coined enduring concepts like “structural violence,” the distinction between “positive” and “negative” peace, and other notions that, for the last several decades, have undergirded activism against war and against, well, The System.  Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Galtung looked the part as he addressed his large Notre Dame audience, giving them a tour of violence around the world.

Doubtless, though, some in the audience were surprised when Galtung identified the greatest episode of violence in the world.  Was it U.S. imperialism in the Middle East?  No.  Colonialist exploitation of one kind or another?  No.  Galtung fingered sex selection abortion, carried out by the Chinese government through its “one-child policy,” as the world’s top form of violence.

Galtung is on my mind as I contemplate what I believe will prove a historic moment in Notre Dame’s witness for social justice, namely its hosting of the world’s greatest human rights dissident, China’s Chen Guangcheng, which will take place today, Tuesday, April 7.  Chen has stood for many causes in China, including women’s rights and land reform, but his most famous advocacy is against the one-child policy.

Not only is Galtung on my mind as I anticipate Chen’s address, but so is the recently deceased great president of Notre Dame, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who did so much to establish Notre Dame’s witness for social justice.  It was under Hesburgh’s leadership, for instance, that President Jimmy Carter gave a famous address on human rights at Notre Dame in 1977, establishing human rights as a major theme of his presidency that would endure long after his tenure in office.  Because of Hesburgh, Notre Dame continues to draw upon its Catholic roots in advocating human rights passionately.  (See my earlier post on Fr. Hesburgh’s civil rights legacy written just after Hesburgh’s death on February 26, 2015.)  Such a legacy finds a fitting exemplar in Chen Guangcheng.

Blind from childhood, known as the “barefoot lawyer,” Chen cinematically escaped house arrest in April 2012, climbing over the wall of his house, swimming across a river, and reaching the U.S. embassy, where he found refuge. In May 2012, the Chinese government allowed him to leave for New York University to take up a visiting scholar position. More recently, he has held positions at the Witherspoon Institute and The Catholic University of America. Now he gives lectures, has recently finished his autobiography, The Barefoot Lawyer, and continues to speak against the one-child policy.

First enacted in 1980, the policy has resulted in over 400 million abortions, according to the Chinese government. Many, if not most, of these abortions are forced or at least performed under heavy state pressure. Horrific stories abound of women brutally coerced into giving up their babies, even in the late term of their pregnancies. True, the policy is enforced unevenly, contains many exceptions, and was relaxed in 2013 to allow more births to take place. Still, the scale has been gargantuan.

One of the policy’s worst perversities is the one that Galtung identified: “sex-selection” abortion, in which parents abort girls far more often than boys, who are culturally preferred. In addition to taking the lives of girls en masse, the policy has created sex ratios that leave tens of millions of men in China without mates, resulting in an enormous market for sex trafficking, mail-order brides, and prostitution.

For those who hold, as I do, that the unborn child is a complete person with full dignity from the time he or she is conceived, the one-child policy deserves to be ranked among the genocides of the past century. Opposition to the one-child policy is also a cause around which diverse advocates can coalesce. Among harsh critics of the policy are Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and journalist Mara Hvistendahl, a pro-choice feminist whose book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, is an excellent account of sex-selection abortion around the world. The brutal coercion of women combined with sex selection make the one-child policy a quintessential women’s issue.

Accompanying Chen in his visit will be another heroic human rights advocate, a rare activist who devotes herself almost solely to the one-child policy, Reggie Littlejohn, who will be showing her film, It’s a Girl, earlier on the day that Chen will speak.

All of this comes to Notre Dame thanks to the visionary leadership of the Institute for Church Life and its Director, John Cavadini.  Let us hope that as a result of Chen’s and Littejohn’s witness, more will join the ranks of those who oppose a human rights violation which, as Galtung rightly argued, has no parallel.

Updated: Tuesday, April 7

Update on Raif Badawi

Before I move on to other topics, I wanted to provide an update on Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to a thousand lashes for his criticism of the political and religious establishment in his country. Following the offer by seven of us on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to take a hundred lashes each on his behalf, by popular demand we also launched a site for people all around the world to sign up to take a lash (symbolically, at least) as well. Once that petition surpassed a thousand signatories, we sent a followup letter to the Saudi ambassador in Washington reiterating our stance and encouraging his government to take note of the worldwide support for the beleaguered victim. You can read the letter and petition here.

Since the first installment of the lashings (meant to be fifty a week for twenty weeks), there has been a series of postponements, so Raif Badawi has been spared further brutality–thus far. The question, of course, is what happens next. No one really knows, except that the intense international pressure (for which we are only partly responsible, to be sure) does seem to have convinced the Saudi government that it cannot go ahead with the intended barbarism. This is just the effect we hoped for, but it’s a tricky thing: Intense pressure is necessary to sway the government, but the government–especially under a new king–surely wants to avoid appearing to have bowed to international pressure. So then it becomes a matter of how, or whether, the government can find a face-saving way to back down. There was a glimmer of hope when the case was referred back to court, an odd (and therefore perhaps promising) development given that Badawi had already been sentenced and his punishment already begun. That optimism was dashed when it was reported that the referral of his case back to court meant that the apostasy charge, which carries the death penalty and which had previously been thrown out by a higher judge, could be back on the table. Fortunately, some politicians, including in Quebec, where Badawi’s family now lives, are keeping up the pressure; it is clearly bothering the Saudis. One hopes that they will soon capitulate and perhaps release him to Canada, even if they have to do it without ever admitted they were wrong. One also hopes that the international community can sustain the attention necessary to see this injustice brought to an end.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.