IRLA Leader: “Religious freedom deserves higher profile in US foreign policy”

IRLA deputy secretary general, Dwayne Leslie, says the widespread restriction and denial of relgious freedom around the globe is a reality that must be reflected more in the work and policies of the US State Department.  [IRLA file photo]

Diplomacy and foreign policy must acknowledge reality of widespread restrictions on faith

The International Religious Liberty Association, together with a coalition of religious and human rights groups, is supporting proposed legislation that would require the US State Department to place more emphasis on promoting religious freedom around the world.

Dwayne Leslie, IRLA deputy secretary general, says the legislation would give religious freedom concerns greater weight and prominence in the diplomacy and foreign policy of the United States.

“Religious freedom is the most basic of human rights,” he says. “What we believe about God and how we express our belief is intensely personal—it goes to the heart of who we are and how we choose to live our lives. Yet, for more than two thirds of the world’s population, the right to worship according to conscience is either restricted or denied. The IRLA believes this reality must be reflected more clearly in the day-to-day work of the US State Department.”

The proposed law, known as HR 1856, was introduced by Representative Frank Wolf, who has a long track record of championing human rights legislation. It would allow a seven-year continuation of the US-funded, bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—a body created by Congress in 1998 to advise the State Department, the President, and Congress about current religious freedom issues. One of the key functions of the commission is to produce a yearly Religious Freedom report, which identifies countries of particular concern and which the State Department must, by law, consider as it develops policy positions.

Besides reauthorizing the USCIRF, the new law, if passed, would also strengthen the role and “diplomatic clout” of the US ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, in part, by placing the office more directly under the authority of the Secretary of State.  The proposed legislation would also ramp up religious freedom education within the State Department; every foreign service officer would be obliged to undergo special training in religious freedom issues.

Mr. Leslie says the IRLA will continue to work with other concerned organizations to generate grassroots support for the new law, and to encourage other congressmen and women to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill. “Right now, there are only nine co-sponsors and we would like that number to be closer to 150,” he says. United States citizens can help move the legislation forward by calling the office of their congressional representative and asking them to become a cosponsor of HR 1856. [Bettina Krause/IRLA]