Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
October 26, 2009

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Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together.
--President Barack Obama

In his landmark speech at Cairo University, President Obama articulated his vision for "a new beginning" between the United States and Muslims around the world —a relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Building stronger ties, he said, requires "a sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground." This renewed engagement compels us not to shirk from contentious issues but rather to "face these tensions squarely" and work as partners to solve problems.

The Department of State offers its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom in this spirit of dialogue and cooperation. Religion is a global phenomenon; all countries face the challenges and opportunities religious diversity poses, and no country has a perfect record on religious freedom. As Americans we are rightfully proud of our own heritage of religious liberty; countless religious refugees have fled persecution in their homelands and found sanctuary on our shores. But we are also painfully aware of our nation's past mistreatment of certain minority groups. From the public execution of Quakers in mid-17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony to the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in 1838-39 to the discrimination many Muslim Americans felt following 9/11, our society has long struggled to accommodate its religious diversity. Yet we have learned from experience that we are enriched by a pluralism that is endorsed by government and embraced by society. Through the Annual Report and other diplomatic efforts, we encourage all nations to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance for all groups and individuals. As President Obama said in Cairo:

"People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it's being challenged in many different ways."

The Annual Report surveys those "many different ways" in 198 countries and territories. Covering both deteriorations and improvements in the status of governmental and societal respect for religious freedom, the Annual Report aims to be comprehensive and balanced, considering the diversity and dynamism of the world's religious traditions and socio-political contexts. Despite the varied conditions religious communities encounter around the globe, the principled and practical reasons for safeguarding their freedom remain the same: religious freedom is a fundamental right, a social good, a source of stability, and a key to international security. President Obama touched on issues related to each of these four reasons in remarks given throughout this past year.

First, religious freedom is the birthright of all people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments, the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate one's faith must be respected by all societies and governments. The United States takes this obligation seriously. "America will always stand," the President said in his Ramadan message to Muslims, "for the universal rights of all people to speak their mind, practice their religion, contribute fully to society, and have confidence in the rule of law."

Second, religious freedom empowers communities of faith to advance the common good. On balance, freedom tends to channel the convictions and passions of faith into acts of service and positive engagement in the public square. In the United States scores of religious groups, from the largest denominations to the smallest local congregations, have put their faith into practice and helped to build a more just and compassionate society. In announcing the establishment of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, President Obama said, "There is a force for good greater than government. It is an expression of faith, this yearning to give back, this hungering for a purpose larger than our own, that reveals itself not simply in places of worship but in senior centers and shelters, schools, and hospitals."

Third, religious freedom is not only a human right and social good, it is imperative for national stability. Authoritarian regimes that repress religious groups and ideas in the name of stability create the very conditions that subvert their stated goals. Repression radicalizes. Coercive and arbitrary interference in peaceful religious practice can harden resentment against the state and lead some to separatism or insurgency. By contrast, "freedom of religion and expression," the President remarked to the Turkish Parliament, "lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state… An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people."

Fourth, in an age when terrorist groups export their hatred around the world, religious freedom is critical to international security. As the President noted in Cairo, "when violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean." Governments must ensure that their policies on religion do not have negative international consequences. Regimes that manipulate religion or marginalize minority groups exacerbate interreligious tension and throw fuel on the fire of radical religious ideologies. Environments of robust religious freedom, on the other hand, foster communal harmony and embolden voices of moderation to openly refute extremists on religious grounds.

In light of the benefits of religious freedom and the dangers of denying it, the United States promotes this universal right as a core objective of its foreign policy. The Annual Report is the flagship tool in this effort. It informs our bilateral policies and diplomatic strategies, shines a spotlight on abusive governments, and gives hope to millions who suffer on account of their faith. The Report also serves as a rich resource of detailed data on religion in society, and we greatly value the contributions of activists and scholars who make use of our reports and enrich our understanding of the complex causes and effects of religious freedom and persecution. We welcome further analysis using our reports, as well as critiques of U.S. domestic and international religious freedom policies. It is our hope that the Annual Report stimulates global dialogue and inspires cooperative action leading to a more just and secure world.

Michael Posner
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor