Remarks on the International Religious Freedom Report

Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Washington, DC
September 13, 2011

Hello, I’m Suzan Johnson Cook. As the United States Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the Department of State, I wanted to share with you about an important tool we use to promote and defend religious freedom around the globe—our International Religious Freedom Report, or IRFR. We recently released the 2010.5 report, which is a six-month report covering July 1, 2010, to December 31, 2010. We expect to change the reporting cycle to a calendar year, so the next report would cover all of 2011.

Every year, as a part of our overall effort to advance the universal human right of religious liberty, the State Department prepares a comprehensive review of the status of religious freedom in every country. We do this because we believe that religious freedom is both a fundamental human right and an essential element to any stable, peaceful, thriving society.

This is not only an American view; it is the view of nations and people around the world. We publish this report in tumultuous times that underscore the importance of freedom of religion to peaceful political and economic development, democratic institutions, and flourishing societies. Religious freedom must be protected by law and embraced by society. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and guaranteed by the laws and constitutions of many nations, including our own. Religious freedom is the first freedom listed in our Bill of Rights.

Because we believe in religious freedom and because we are committed to the right of all people everywhere to live according to their beliefs without government interference and with government protection, we are troubled by abuses of religious freedom in many parts of the world. Religious freedom is under threat from authoritarian regimes that abuse their own citizens. It is under threat from violent extremist groups that exploit and inflame sectarian tensions. It is under threat from the quiet but persistent harm caused by intolerance and mistrust, which can leave minority religious groups vulnerable and marginalized.

Many governments continue to repress religious freedom and persecute religious minorities. Around the world, we see that such repression marginalizes vulnerable populations, emboldens extremists, fuels sectarian tensions, and robs societies of the moral and charitable contributions of faith communities. In short, repression of religious freedom runs contrary to shared universal values and undermines genuine stability. For these reasons, the United States’ commitment to promoting, defending, and protecting religious freedom across the globe is an essential element of both our global commitment to protect human rights and our strategy for promoting national security.

Restrictions on freedom of religion by certain governments undermine and discredit their commitments to international human rights standards and increase the likelihood of societal discrimination and conflict. Our reports, including this June-December 2010 edition, show several key trends in how governments and societies repress religious freedom. I will now outline a few of those trends.

First, governments all too often violate religious freedom through both intentional restrictions and the failure to prevent and prosecute societal violence and discrimination. Some governments seek to control all religious thought and expression as part of a more comprehensive determination to control all aspects of political and civic life. Other governments intimidate and harass religious communities, or in severe cases, demand that adherents renounce their faith or force them to relocate or flee the country. Still other governments restrict religious freedom by discriminating against specific groups, asserting they are illegitimate and dangerous to individuals or societal order, or by favoring one religion over others.

Many states that have laws guaranteeing religious freedom still fall short in protecting minorities by failing to take steps to curb intolerance, attacks or harassment. Impunity to attack religious minorities exacerbates societal violence and empowers those who attack religious minorities. Additionally, the use and abuse of apostasy and blasphemy laws have exacerbated societal abuses and discrimination against religious minorities and those who promote tolerance, deepening the climate of impunity.

We see another trend in the persecution of religious minorities around the world. In addition to the disproportionate impact of government restrictions on religious minorities and their targeting by violent extremists, minorities often face explicit bans or targeted harassment.

The United States shares a deep concern about discrimination, the targeting and ridiculing of individuals based on their religion, and interreligious violence. We oppose laws banning blasphemy, apostasy, and heresy that are used to indiscriminately persecute and prosecute locally unpopular religious groups. We also share concerns about undue restrictions on places of worship and on religious attire and concerns about actions that willfully exploit tension or perpetuate negative stereotypes. Governments have a moral responsibility to speak out and condemn intolerance, and a duty to ensure the right of all individuals to freely express their faith. Governments also have an obligation to promote and protect freedom of expression, which fundamentally undergirds our freedom to worship and manifest our belief.

We hope this report will help achieve these goals by spreading awareness of religious violence around the world and providing insight into the many benefits of defending the universal right to religious freedom. The report contains an introduction, executive summary, and a chapter describing the status of religious freedom in each of 198 countries throughout the world. Mandated by, and presented to, the U.S. Congress, the report is a public document available online at and

Thank you and please also be sure to follow me on Twitter at IRFAmbassador and on Facebook under Religious Freedom Ambassador.