The Biden Presidency and International Religious Freedom by Jeffrey Haynes, London Metropolitan University

    Jeffrey Haynes was interviewed on 20 April by Rupa Shenoy of "The World", US public radio’s longest-running daily global news program. The goal is to engage domestic US audiences with international affairs through human-centered journalism that consistently connects the global to the local and builds empathy for people around the world.  Shenoy's story on International Religious Freedom will be broadcast on Monday 26 April.


    Question: To the extent you can say, what was the impact on the world of the Trump administration's policies regarding religion, particularly Pompeo’s emphasis on religious freedom at the top of a hierarchy of rights? 

    It is unclear the extent to which the USA’s international religious freedom (IRF) policy will alter following the change in the presidency from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. During the quarter century since Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the USA has shown consistent commitment to seeking to end religious persecution around the world. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was staunch and open in his adhesion to Judeo-Christian values, an approach supported by the Senate and to a degree by the Congress. The key result of the Trump presidency in relation to IRF was the attempt to highlight US support for selective human rights to the exclusion of others. It did not however extend to supporting only Christians in the USA’s IRF policy.

    The main impact of the Trump presidency in relation to IRF was the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, created at Pompeo’s behest in 2019. In April 2021, the Alliance had Members, Observers, and Friends. Members are states which have joined the Alliance and are invited to participate at Ministerial level during the annual Ministers’ Forum; Observers are organisations, institutions, or entities which actively advance freedom of religion or belief globally. Friends are states or organisations that are considering joining or becoming observers. Thirty-two Members as of 23 April 2021: Albania, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Estonia, The Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. At that time, the Friends were Canada, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden. The Observers were the Sovereign Order of Malta and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Most but not all Members are Christian or post-Christian countries. A few are not: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Gambia, Israel, and Senegal.


    Question: In regard to the same subject, what indications have you seen from the Biden administration so far? They seem to be keeping the annual Ministerial on Religious Freedom

    No definitive public announcements yet from Biden on IRF. Sam Brownback, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (2018-2021) not replaced by end of April 2021. This is hardly surprising: it took President Obama a year to appoint Suzan Johnson Cook as his first religious freedom ambassador, as the process was held up when a Republican senator delayed her nomination. The annual Ministerial on Religious Freedom is – for now – retained. Brazil is due to host the fourth, in 2021, but given the state of the country due to the coronavirus pandemic it is not clear what the format will be, or when it will take place.Question: Does that send mixed messages? The countries that were favored under Trump religious policies -- how are they adjusting now?

    No clear Biden message on this yet. IRF does not seem a priority for the new administration while Covid-19 still rages. On the other hand, Antony Blinken, Secretary of State, stated on the US will no longer adhere to a “hierarchy” of rights with religious freedom at the top. Blinken critiqued the Trump administration for creating a “hierarchy” of human rights that placed religious liberty and property rights above other fundamental freedoms. According to Blinken: “Human rights are … co-equal. There is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others” (Blinken comments to reporters as the State Department unveiled its 45th annual report on  the status of human rights around the world, 30 March 2021; https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-on-release-of-the-2020-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/).

    Blinken’s remarks outraged some religious conservatives in the USA (https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/04/secretary-blinken-dont-downplay-the-importance-of-religious-freedom/).


    Question: Is the US array of agencies and commissions working on IRF necessary? Do other countries have such myriad bodies focused on one topic? 

    The USA is unique in this regard. The US model, with an Office in the State Department, with an ambassador at its head, is not replicated anywhere else. Other countries have “units”, or people seconded to International Freedom of Religion or Belief Alliance, such as the UK. Canada did have a US-style office between 2013 and 2016 which was done away with when Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister. The USA – with an Ambassador at Large with an Office – is exceptional.


    Question: Are all of these bodies influenced by politics? Is that inevitable or a hindrance? Again, what do other countries do? 

    The US government’s concern with international religious freedom (IRF) is focused in two bodies: The state body: Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) and the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

    The OIRF and USCIRF separately release annual reports on international religious freedom. The OIRF’s annual report is a global survey of religious freedom, compiled by employees of the State Department. The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity, whose annual report highlights, for consideration by the Executive Branch, ‘countries of particular concern’. USCIRF’s 2021 report focuses on 14 countries of ‘particular concern’ (Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam) and identifies 12 more on the USCIRF’s ‘special watch list’ (Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Uzbekistan).  Thus, of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 26 (13.47%) are singled out by USCIRF as particularly problematic in relation to religious freedom. The countries noted in this regard have various faiths as majority religions.

    Since the passing of the IRF Act in 1998, the relationship between OIRF and USCIRF has sometimes been problematic. This is explicable when we bear in mind that each has different priorities: those of the State Department and Congress. The OIRF is concerned with the incumbent administration’s IRF policy, while the USCIRF prioritises Congress’s concerns. Arguably, to be more effective, OIRF should be led not by a political appointee but by a career diplomat. This might take “politics out of religious freedom” and enable the president to install an ambassador quickly, without the lengthy period waiting for him or her to be ratified by the Senate.

    The USCIRF comprises nine members, all political appointees. Members are appointed by the two main political parties (Democratic and Republican) in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as by the president. The USCIRF annually reports on what it sees as the effectiveness of the State Department’s efforts to promote international religious freedom, and highlights perceived deficiencies. Critics allege that USCIRF is currently dominated by conservative Christians who are said to advance a pro-Christian bias and a partisan anti-Democratic political agenda. All but one of the current USCIRF commissioners have terms of office which end in May 2022.

    Some allege that USCIRF is strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian ideology, encouraging concern with Christians’ religious freedom. Pawan Pandey, a senior politician in India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, recently claimed that several members of USCIRF are “associated with Christian Missionary activities [in India]” and “have been supporting aggressive expansion of Christianity all their lives which includes demonizing other religions”.1 Do such claims stand up to scrutiny? Pandey’s comments came following USCIRF’s 2019 report which stated that in India: “religious freedom conditions… experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault”.2 On the other hand, undermining claims of USCIRF’s Christian bias, is the overall focus of its comprehensive annual reports, which regularly run to more than 100 pages. The reports quite scrupulously detail abuses of religious freedoms in many countries, highlighting the plights not only of persecuted Christians but also of other religious minorities, including the (Muslim) Uyghurs of China.


    Question: Overall, taking in mind the history you lay out in your 2020 article, “Trump and the Politics of International Religious Freedom”,3 where is the US now [in relation to IRF], and how important is that to the rest of the world? 

    The world seems awash with serious religious persecution, affecting many countries and in relation to many faiths. It includes the (Muslim) Rohingya genocide in Burma, mass imprisonment and mistreatment of (Muslim) Uyghurs and other faith groups by China’s government, Islamic State genocide against Yazidis and Islamic extremism against Christians in Syria and Iraq, religious conflicts and violence in Nigeria involving both Christians and Muslims, and a spike in terrorist attacks in many parts of Africa. Collectively, they underline the importance and urgency of expanding and strengthening the international community’s championing of international religious freedom, to encourage increased engagement and firm and decisive leadership.

    Is the USA in a position to lead? The purpose of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance was stated by the most recent IRF Ambassador-at-Large, Sam Brownback, to be: an alliance of “the activist club of countries” in relation to religious freedom. But a quick glance at the 32 members of the Alliance indicates that not all are in this category. What then is the strategic value of the Alliance for US foreign policy? On the one hand, the Alliance purports to champion international religious freedom, perhaps with a Christian prioritisation. But what of the US attack on China over the government’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority? While this issue is not about the plight of Christians, it does concern a country—China—that is a key global rival of the USA. To attack its government over its treatment of a religious minority fulfils two goals: (1) critiques China in an area in which it is vulnerable, and (2) indicates the USA’s foreign policy commitment to minorities’ religious (and cultural) freedom. The “anti-China” policy highlights that the USA is willing “to take on” egregious deniers of “religious freedom” such as China, while also implicitly castigating the country’s government for its denial of human rights more generally. A particularistic approach to religious freedom and human rights is however shown in the case of successive administrations’ relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Among the world’s most egregious deniers of the rights of religious minorities, including Christians, the Saudi government is not castigated by US administrations for its approach. Instead, the importance to the USA of the Saudi government’s role regionally—that is, anti-Iran, anti-radical political changes, pro-stability—takes consistent precedence over concerns that the administration may have over the Saudi government’s treatment of its religious minorities

    1 Pandey, Pawan. 2020. USCIRF: Exposing the Hypocrisy. Available online: https://pawanpandey.in/2020/04/29/uscirf-report-exposing-the-hypocrisy/ (accessed on 23 April 2021).

    2 USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom). 2020. India, USCIRF–Recommended for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC): 20–22. Available online: https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/India.pdf (accessed on  23 April 2021).

    3 'Trump and the Politics of International Religious Freedom', Religions, 11(8), 385, 2020; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11080385



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