The religious freedom policy mandated by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act has now been in operation for fifteen years. Notwithstanding the hard work of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, it would be difficult to name a single country where that policy has reduced persecution or increased freedom. In most of the countries into which the United States has in recent years poured blood and treasure--Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia in particular--freedom is on the decline, persecution on the rise.
The basis of America's support for religious freedom abroad is the assertion that religious freedom is not only a good in itself but one that also advances our national interests. In approximately seventy countries, persecution and restrictions on religion are severe. That list includes virtually all the nations whose internal stability, economic policies, and foreign policies are of substantial concern to the United States, including China, Indonesia, Russia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Egypt, Libya, and most of the nations comprising what was once called "the Arab Spring." In many of these countries, the lack of religious freedom has led to religious conflict and has increased social, economic, and political instability.
The terrible Syrian civil war in large part stems from generations of religious persecution, first of Alawires by Sunnis, and then of Sunnis by the Alawite regime of the Assads. Today the religious dimensions of the conflict have deepened with the entry of Iranian and Lebanese (Hezbollah) Shia terrorists in support of Assad's Alawites, and of al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in support of Syrian Sunni insurgents.
With the passage of IRFA, Congress provided several vehicles to advance religious freedom. The centerpiece is the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by a very senior diplomatic official--an ambassador-at-large--who has authority to represent the United States in implementing American policy. The act also requires the department to issue annual reports on the status of religious freedom in every country abroad, and an annual list of the most severe violators, the "countries of particular concern."
IRFA also created an independent advisory Commission on International Religious Freedom with a mandate to issue its own reports, make recommendations to the president and Congress, and act as a watchdog over American policy. Unlike the State Department office and its ambassador, both of which are by law permanent diplomatic entities, the commission requires periodic reauthorization by Congress.
The "countries of particular concern" list has had virtually no impact. The president is required to take some action against those on the list or explain why no action is warranted. IRFA requires that the list be issued annually, but as of this writing the Obama administration has not done so since 2011. Congress, it seems, takes little notice of this omission, although the commission, under its new chair, Robert George, has publicly and vigorously voiced its concern.
IRFA permits economic sanctions against the nations on this list, but in fifteen years only one country, Eritrea, has ever been sanctioned anew, and religious freedom has declined there. For the most part, the "actions" taken against severe violators (as permitted under IRFA) have been to reaffirm existing sanctions, such as those in place barring the export of crime-control and detection equipment to China. In countries where there are no sanctions in place, such as Saudi Arabia, the president is permitted to waive any action if a waiver will further the purposes of the law or is deemed to be in the "important national interests of the United States."
In other words, nothing has ever really been done, except perhaps to irritate our banker (China) or our erstwhile ally in oil (Saudi Arabia). I know of no evidence that either the listing or the sanctions have improved the status of religious freedom in any country. At one time there was an argument to be made that Vietnam had improved, but that no longer seems to be the case. The commission has recommended that Vietnam, which was removed from the list a few years ago because of improvements in religious freedom, be returned to the list this year.
Religious freedom has played little or no role in diplomatic programs to achieve fundamental American interests. Officials, including presidents and secretaries of state, have done almost nothing to integrate religious freedom into our democratic, economic, and counterterrorism strategies. Some have spoken publicly about religious freedom, but foreign policy speeches are empty words if the)' are not followed by strategic planning and policy action.
In June 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo to give his first major address on Islam and American interests. In that speech, he identified a number of issues, including religious freedom, that were to be part of his new engagement with the Muslim world. Afterward, our foreign policy agencies geared into action, forming interagency working groups to develop strategies on all the issues identified by the...