USCIRF reigned in


So at the eleventh hour last Friday, the House and Senate passed a bill to keep the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom alive. And despite the yelps of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), it included the changes proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). As for the funds to reopen that federal prison in Illinois, if they were part of the deal it’ll presumably emerge later. What the Durbin amendment did was take a few steps to make the Commission less of a loose cannon.

Most importantly, commissioners will be limited to two two-year terms, and if they’ve already completed two, they are gone in 90 days. This will stop the USCIRF from serving as a permanent bully pulpit for the likes of Nina Shea, who’s been there from the beginning thanks to a succession of Republican re-appointments. In recent days, Shea’s intemperate style has been on view in an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez in the National Catholic Register and in a New York Post op-ed attacking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s December 14 address to the “Istanbul Process for Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief” (reprinted after jump). It’s time for Shea to go.

In addition, the Commission is required to conform to government employment discrimination standards–an apparent reference to a discrimination case brought by a former analyst who charged that her contract was not renewed because of her faith and her affiliation with the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Isn’t that special? The Commission now must also observe State Department ‘s travel regulations. Might commissioners have been traveling to foreign lands a little higher on the hog than appropriate?

I’d have preferred the USCIRF not to have had its lease on life renewed but at least the re-authorization is an improvement. And who knows, maybe that federal prison will come in handy.




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Immediate Release                                                                    
December 14, 2011





Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton Addresses the Istanbul Process for
Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

December 14,

Department of

Washington, D.C.

Well, good afternoon, everyone, and I want to thank you all for participating
in this conference where we are working together to protect two fundamental
freedoms – the right to practice one’s religion freely and the right to express
one’s opinion without fear. 

delighted to see so many members of the diplomatic corps.  I welcome all
of you here to the State Department.  I especially wish to acknowledge
Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, who has been leading our efforts, and also
Ambassador Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council, who
has also been tireless in pursuit of America’s fundamental and the world’s
universal values. 

this year, the international community in the Human Rights Council made an
important commitment.  And it was really historic, because before then, we
had seen the international community pit against one another freedom of
religion and freedom of expression.  And there were those in the
international community who vigorously and passionately defended one but not
the other.  And our goal in the work that so many nations represented here
have been doing, with the adoption of Resolution 1618 and then again last month
in the General Assembly’s Third Committee, was to say we all can do
better.  And this resolution marks a step forward in creating a safe
global environment for practicing and expressing one’s beliefs.  In it, we
pledge to protect the freedom of religion for all while also protecting freedom
of expression.  And we enshrined our commitment to tolerance and
inclusivity by agreeing to certain concrete steps to combat violence and
discrimination based on religion or belief.  These steps, we hope, will
help foster a climate that respects the human rights of all.

the United States is hosting this conference because religious freedom and
freedom of expression are among our highest values.  They are enshrined in
our Constitution.  For people everywhere, faith and religious practice is
a central source of our identity.  It provides our lives with meaning and
context.  It is fundamental to who we are.  And as the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights makes clear, each of us is born free to practice
any religion, to change our religion, or to have none at all.  No state
may grant these freedoms as a privilege or take them away as a punishment if
you believe, as I do and as our country does, that they are not rights bestowed
by any government.  They are rights endowed by our Creator within each of
us.  And therefore, we have a special obligation to protect these
God-given rights. 

if a government does try to deny them or take them away, it amounts to a
rejection of that universal right.  And it also amounts to a repudiation
of that fundamental conviction that we are all created equal before God. 
Therefore, restricting the practice of anyone’s faith is a threat to the human
rights of all individuals.  Communities of faith are not confined by
geopolitical borders.  Wherever you are in the world, there will certainly
be people whose religious beliefs differ from your own, maybe by just a little
bit or maybe by a lot.  And my ability to practice my religious faith
freely does not, and indeed cannot, diminish yours. 

can be such a powerful bond, but we also recognize that it can be misused to
create conflict.  There are those who, for reasons actually having little
to do with religion, seek to instill fear or contempt for those of another
creed.  So we believe that it is the duty of every government to ensure
that individuals are not subject to violence, discrimination, or intimidation
because of their faith or their lack of faith.  That is the commitment
that the world made to religious freedom more than 60 years ago when we adopted
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

the same time, as we strive to protect individuals from violence and
discrimination because of their religion or their beliefs, we must also express
the freedom of expression.  Now, in the United States, we take that
especially seriously because many of those who came to our country came for
religious reasons.  They came because they were being discriminated
against or their religion was being outlawed.  They started coming in the
17th century, and they still come all the way through the 21st

how would one know that you were being discriminated against if you didn’t have
the right to freedom of expression?  Your neighbor knows, well, that
person is different from me because he or she believes differently.  So
the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression are absolutely bound up

there are those who have always seen a tension between these two freedoms,
especially when one person’s speech seems to question someone else’s religious
beliefs, or maybe even offends that person’s beliefs.  But the truth we
have learned, through a lot of trial and error over more than 235 years in our
country, is that we defend our beliefs best by defending free expression for
everyone, and it lowers the temperature.  It creates an environment in
which you are free to exercise and to speak about your religion, whether your
neighbor or someone across the town agrees with you or not.  In fact, the
appropriate answer to speech that offends is more speech. 

in the United States, we continue to combat intolerance because it is –
unfortunately, seems to be part of human nature.  It is hurtful when
bigotry pollutes the public sphere, but the state does not silence ideas, no
matter how disagreeable they might be, because we believe that in the end, the
best way to treat offensive speech is by people either ignoring it or combating
it with good arguments and good speech that overwhelms it.

we do speak out and condemn hateful speech.  In fact, we think it is our
duty to do so, but we don’t ban it or criminalize it.  And over the
centuries, what we have found is that the rough edges get rubbed off, and
people are free to believe and speak, even though they may hold diametrically
opposing views. 

with Resolution 1618, we have clarified these dual objectives.  We embrace
the role that free expression plays in bolstering religious tolerance.  We
have agreed to build a culture of understanding and acceptance through concrete
measures to combat discrimination and violence, such as education and outreach,
and we are working together to achieve those objectives.

I know that in the world today, intolerance is not confined to any part of the
world or any group of people.  We all continue to deal with different
forms of religious intolerance.  That’s true here, that’s true in Europe,
that’s true among countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,
everywhere in the world.   It’s true where people, if they are discriminating
or intimidating, they’re doing it against Muslims or Jews or Christians or
Buddhists or Baha’is or  you name it.  There has been discrimination
of every kind against every religion known to man.

yet at the same time, it’s one thing if people are just disagreeing.  That
is fair game.  That’s free speech.  But if it results in sectarian
clashes, if it results in the destruction or the defacement or the
vandalization of religious sites, if it even results in imprisonment or death,
then government must held those – hold those who are responsible
accountable.  Government must stand up for the freedom of religion and the
freedom of expression. And it’s a situation which is troubling to us, because a
recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent
of the world’s population lives in countries with a high number of restrictions
on religious freedom.

America, we are proud of our long and distinctive record of championing both
freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and we have worked to share our best
practices.  But I have to say we have one difficulty in understanding all
of the problems that we see around the world, and that is that because religion
is so personal and because it is something that we highly value in ourselves,
it strikes us as troubling that people are not confident in their religious
beliefs to the point where they do not fear speech that raises questions about

mean, every one of us who is a religious person knows that there are some who
may not support or approve of our religion.  But is our religion so weak
that statements of disapproval will cause us to lose our faiths?  That
would be most unfortunate.  In fact, what we have found, in study after
study, is that the United States is one of the most religious countries in the
world.  And yet anybody can believe anything and go anywhere.  And so
there is no contradiction between having strong religious beliefs and having
the freedom to exercise them and to speak about them and to even have good
debates with others.

so the United States has made a commitment to support the 1618 implementation
efforts, but we also would hope that we can take practical steps to engage with
members of religious minority groups.  We know that antidiscrimination
laws are no good if they’re not enforced, and if they’re not enforced equally,
we know that governments which fear religion can be quite oppressive, but we
know that societies which think there’s only one religion can be equally

the fact is that no matter how strongly each of us believes, none of us has the
benefit of knowing all the truth that God holds in his hands.  And
therefore, we are doing the best we can here on earth to reflect and to give
honor to our creator in a way that is manifest in our religious values. 
Because truly, at the root of every major religion, is a connection with the
divinity, is an acceptance, and is a recognition that we all are walking a path

I know that some in my country and elsewhere have criticized this meeting and
our work with all of you.  But I want to make clear that I am proud of
this work, and I am proud to be working with every one of you.  And I
believe that this work is an affirmation of America’s values, but equally
important an affirmation of universal values.  Because we nor – no country
individually has a monopoly on the truth, and we will do better when we live in
peace with each other, when we live with respect and humility, and listen to
each other.  And it is important that we recognize what we accomplished
when this resolution ended 10 years of divisive debate where people were not
listening to each other anymore. 

we are.  We’re talking.  We have to get past the idea that we can
suppress religious minorities, that we can restrict speech, that we are smart
enough that we can substitute our judgment for God’s and determine who is or is
not blaspheming.  And by bringing countries from around the world here, we
are affirming our common humanity and our common commitment to defend and
promote fundamental rights.

these will not be easy conversations.  When I was growing up, my parents
said, “You should never talk about religion, because you will always spark a
fight.”  And that was even amongst people of the same faith.  We have
– there’s lots of funny stories about different kinds of Christians that won’t
talk to other kinds of Christians, because another kind of Christian is not as
good as the first kind of Christian.  Well, we know that those kind of
divisions exist in every major religion, where people claim that your
particular version of religion is the only one that can be followed. 

people of all faiths have so much to gain by working together.  And I was
so moved by the images that we saw coming out of Tahrir Square back in February
– January and February, where you saw Coptic Egyptians joining hands to form a
protective circle around their Muslim brothers and sisters so they could pray
safely in the midst of these huge crowds.  And then you saw Muslims doing
the same for their Christian brothers and sisters.  That is, to me, the
highest expression of religious tolerance and free expression that one could
possibly find.  Those were defining moments in 2011 and those are images
that inspire me as we move into 2012. 

thank you.  And I think interfaith dialogue, reaching out to those with
whom you disagree, even agreeing to disagree, so to speak, is a part of the
work we are struggling to do.  And we can make progress where we have a
new attitude in our world where we can believe strongly what we believe. 
We can think others are wrong, but we don’t feel so insecure and so fearful of
their wrong views that we try to suppress them, imprison them, or even kill them. 
Instead, we trust that over time, if they are wrong, they will come to see the
error of their ways.  But we continue the conversation as fellow human
beings and as people of faith.

I thank you very much for being with us, and I wish you well as you continue
this absolutely important work.  I think if we do our work right, in years
to come, people will look back and say this was a great step forward on behalf
of both freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and our common
humanity.  Thank you all very much.  (Applause.)


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