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Religion and Diplomacy: A Transatlantic Dialogue

Religion and Diplomacy: A Transatlantic Dialogue

Remarks
Uzra Zeya
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Brookings Institution
Washington, DC
May 14, 2014

Good morning. It is a pleasure and honor to be with you today. I want to thank The Brookings Institution, William Galston, E.J. Dionne, and Peter Mandaville for this opportunity to talk with you about the nexus between religion and foreign policy. This is an incredibly important topic for us at the Department of State. Recent events are confirming, from the Central African Republic to Crimea, now more than ever, the need to understand religious dynamics and engage with religious leaders. This is not only about promoting religious freedom but how to advance greater respect and acceptance across faiths.

Let me assure you, religious freedom is a bedrock priority of American foreign policy, alongside democracy promotion. As Secretary of State Kerry stated at his confirmation hearing, religious freedom is “at the core of who we are.” Given the important role religion plays in the lives of so many people, we miss a key opportunity for engagement when we leave out religious leaders and their faith groups—particularly when conflicts arise.

I understand today’s conference is the second in a series begun in London on Religion and Diplomacy. Today’s meeting is providing the space for this dialogue to continue between government and civil society. What makes it particularly rich is that the Brookings Institution has brought together government officials from multiple countries, including my own, with civil society representatives to strategize on how we might partner to counter rising religious intolerance.

Regardless of our work affiliations, faith backgrounds or beliefs, I believe our vision is shared: the guarantee of universal religious freedom within peaceful communities free of violent extremism.

So where do we stand right now? Three facts before us:

Fact #1: We live in a religious world. According to Pew Forum statistics, 84% of the world’s population claims a religion. It’s clear that religion matters to the majority of the people around the globe. It is no surprise, then, that religious leaders and their communities sometimes hold the key to peaceful resolution and sustained peace.

Often held as trusted agents by their communities, faith leaders can be authentic voices calling for tolerance and reconciliation. We have seen this in Ukraine where Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders are speaking out in support of each other and expressing their shared desire for peace.

Religious leaders can be the voices of tolerance and acceptance, or the voices inflaming intolerance. A key goal of U.S. engagement with religious communities, therefore, is to urge them to use their leadership responsibly—to promote mutual respect and freedom for their own faith and for others.

Western diplomacy has traditionally not emphasized religious dialogue. So we miss important opportunities when we speak only to governments while leaving out religious groups and faith leaders. Interfaith dialogue and religious engagement are therefore key elements in our diplomatic outreach.

Fact #2: Religious intolerance is on the rise. Pew research tells us that the number of countries with religion-related terrorist violence has doubled over the past six years. Furthermore, more than 5 billion people—74% of the world’s population—live in countries with high levels of government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion. Too often, religious minorities are the target of both legal clampdowns and violence.

Around the world we see conflicts involving religion undermining community well-being and turning neighbor against neighbor. We see this with attacks against Rohingya in Burma, with the recent kidnappings by Boko Haram in Nigeria, with attacks on Christians in some Muslim countries, and with the rise of anti-Semitic, xenophobic parties in Europe.

All of us—whether serving in government, civil society, or as members of religious communities—must also stand up and speak out against violence and intimidation carried out in the name of religion. We have a similar obligation to stand up for vulnerable groups facing persecution or discrimination by governments and societal actors.

Fact #3: Religious freedom promotes regional stability. Research shows that where there is religious freedom, there is more stability in communities. In denying religious freedom, governments often undermine their own interests. Crackdowns on religious freedom destabilize communities and suppress economic growth. When governments repress religious expression, when politicians co-opt religious leaders for personal agendas, when public figures fail to denounce religious bigotry, the groundwork is laid for violent extremism to grow.

Promoting respect for religious freedom and tolerance are therefore essential for peaceful society—but this is not just the job of governments. It’s also the work of civil society to build bridges across religious divides and foster mutual respect. Government and civil society can exponentially increase their effectiveness in building peaceful, democratic societies when they can partner together.

How the Department of State is integrating religion in diplomacy.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have emphasized the importance of engaging religious leaders and communities in advancing development, human rights and conflict mitigation. To this end, the Department is facilitating engagement involving citizens, faith-based organizations, and governments. The Bureau I represent, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), is heavily engaged in interfaith collaboration.

To give you a brief overview of the DRL bureau, we lead the Department of State’s efforts to promote democracy; protect human rights, including international religious freedom; and advance labor rights around the world. Our mission is to advance universal human rights and fundamental freedoms and to strengthen democratic institutions in pursuit of a more peaceful, prosperous and stable world.

Within DRL, we have undertaken a number of initiatives to operationalize religious engagement as part of our foreign policy. While not an exhaustive list, I’d like to note a few of the concrete steps we’ve taken:

1) The International Religious Freedom Report and Country of Particular Concern Designations: Each year we report the status of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries. These reports provide a strong tool to hold governments accountable for deficits in universal religious freedoms that we all should enjoy. We also periodically review countries where religious freedom is under the greatest threat. For those nations perpetrating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, we recommend that Secretary of State designate them as Countries of Particular Concern. Currently these countries include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
2) Promotion of religious freedom worldwide: Of course our work on religious freedom is not confined to reports alone. We make sure religious freedom concerns are addressed in diplomatic outreach, whether that be urging the government of Pakistan to repeal blasphemy laws or working with European nations and the OSCE to combat rising anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance.
3) The third area of religious engagement is through the Secretary’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society – Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Launched in 2011, these strategic dialogues created a formal channel for the Secretary of State to receive recommendations and perspectives from civil society. One of the suggestions coming from the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group was to establish an official mechanism for faith-based communities to engage with the Department of State. Acting on this recommendation, Secretary Kerry launched the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives in 2013. I believe Shaun Casey, who heads up this office, will be speaking with you tomorrow about the incredible work they have been doing.
4) Diplomatic training in religion and foreign policy. With a careful eye to the First Amendment’s Establishment clause, U.S. diplomats have sometimes steered clear of religious engagement, not wanting to overstep the line separating church and state. To better equip our diplomats with the fluency necessary to engage religious leaders, we now offer twice a year an intensive course on Religion and Foreign Policy at the Foreign Service Institute. As an indicator of the success of this endeavor, the upcoming class is already full. The Bureau of Conflict & Stabilization Operations has also been working to develop new, interactive training modules on religion and conflict mitigation.
5) Conferences open to government and civil society. Since 2013, we’ve held three roundtables on the following issues. We know how important it is to collaborate with civil society and other government agency colleagues.
• Working with Civil Society to Advance International Religious Freedom
• Interfaith Dialogue, Religious Freedom, and Combating Violent Extremism
• Women Religious Leaders and Conflict Prevention
Given that close to 100 people attended each of these roundtables—and over a third of them came from civil society or other US government agencies—I would say there is great interest in such dialogues. That’s also evident from the diversity of attendance here today. These events offer government and civil society a space to dig down further into implementing our shared goals on religious freedom.
6) Sponsoring interfaith travel. When religious leaders have the opportunity to explore history together, breakthrough insights can occur. For this reason, we see great value in sponsoring interfaith travel. Last year, a group of imams and Muslim scholars along with the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, visited Dachau and Auschwitz. At the close of the trip, they pledged to fight anti-Semitism and hate in their own communities. When leaders unite across faiths to speak up for each other in the face of religious intolerance, it’s an irrefutable message.
7) Another important track for religious engagement is the Human Rights & Democracy Fund. Recognizing that governments cannot do it alone, DRL currently provides $8 million in funding for civil society programs specifically related to religious freedom. In this way, civil society can effect change at the grassroots level. Sometimes this programming is the only US assistance available to citizens working to improve their societies. Wherever possible, we collaborate with other agencies and bureaus to ensure that our programs are not duplicating other efforts.
8) 16/18 Process. A final example is the implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which offers an affirmative path for combating discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief. To this end, we facilitate a training program for local officials on cultural awareness regarding religious minorities and enforcement of non-discrimination laws. So far, successful training sessions have been held in Bosnia, Greece, and Indonesia, and we plan to expand the training to other countries soon.

Conclusion

As I have stated, we all realize the importance of working together to address religious intolerance and the violence and instability it can breed …it’s the implementation which presents the greatest challenge. The challenges are significant, but I believe they are surmountable. I understand you’ll be looking more closely at implementation and next steps this afternoon. I hope you have a fruitful dialogue and will share these conclusions with me and my staff. We look forward to more such conversations moving ahead.

ENDS

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