Pacem in Terris Conference

Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom 
Catholic University
Washington, DC
April 9, 2013

Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here with you to be part of this dialogue on peace building, particularly across religious divides. This discussion couldn’t come at a better time. Around the world we are seeing religious conflicts tear countries and communities apart, and sectarian tensions turn neighbor against neighbor. Religion can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution. So how can faith communities be part of the solution?

As Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, I have thought deeply on this topic. I have witnessed firsthand what can happen when people put aside religious differences to work together. In my travels, I have seen great things happen when religious and community leaders join in dialogue to share ideas, to grow a vision of harmony together.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, I’m struck anew how the proposals Pope John XXIII put forth 50 years ago continue to resonate. Pacem in Terris is truly a living document.

Increasingly we are seeing how interconnected and interdependent we all are, regardless of national boundaries or national economies. Increasingly we see that leaders of nations, working through traditional diplomatic channels alone cannot solve world problems without partnering with civil society. Negotiation in place of violence benefits us all. As Pope John XXIII wrote, “The true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms but in mutual trust alone.”

In Pacem in Terris Pope John XXIII praised the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, seeing its value in building world community. This declaration enshrines the right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion—including the freedom to believe or not to believe. The U.S. government firmly stands by these universal human rights.

At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that religious freedom is “at the core of who we are…Carrying the banner of religious tolerance, diversity, and pluralism is critical.” In my role, I work to help people understand that tolerance, diversity, and pluralism are essential for a country to flourish.

Now, we don’t work towards religious freedom just because it’s the right thing to do…and let me emphasize this…it IS the right thing to do. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that religious freedom is essential for safe, secure, and prosperous communities. When a government fails to provide equal protection of religious freedom to all people, the groundwork is laid for political instability, extremist ideology, and sectarian violence to take root.

I don’t believe there is a religion that escapes being attacked in some corner of the globe. I have talked with Muslims facing discrimination, Christians unable to openly follow their faith, Buddhists who aren’t allowed to practice their beliefs, Jews who encounter societal hatred. No group is immune from attack. That is why we defend everyone’s right to believe, or not to believe, according to the dictates of their own conscience.

Look at the number of situations around the world where conflicts least in part…from religious controversy. Is it any wonder, then, that religion affects politics in many countries? Indeed, the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry promote religious freedom as an integral component of U.S. foreign policy.

How are we doing this?

At the Department of State, we have a variety of tools at our disposal. The first is direct diplomatic engagement with other governments in bilateral and multilateral discussions. We do this in Washington, as well as via our embassies abroad. When I travel around the world, to Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Morocco, just to name a few, I raise religious freedom with government officials, as do my other State Department colleagues and senior officials, including the President himself.

In Vietnam, which used to be designated a Country of Particular Concern, I advocated continued progress on respecting religious freedom for members of all groups. In addition to my government meetings, I met with the archbishop of Hanoi, Protestant and Buddhist leaders, and a group of nuns working with children. I was inspired by the work all these faiths are doing to build their communities.

Given that religious freedom is so vital for peace and security, how do we get governments to promote respect for religious freedom? After much debate, the United Nations passed UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18, which calls for states to protect citizens and their right to free expression while promoting respect for religious differences. In December 2011, I co-chaired the first experts meeting in Washington, which brought together representatives from other countries and four international organizations to discuss how to implement Resolution 16/18. This was the first in a series of meetings on how to protect minority communities from discrimination and violence.

The second item in our toolbox is the annual International Religious Freedom Report, which highlights the status of religious freedom in 199 countries. We use this report in our discussions with other governments, international organizations, and civil society—to clearly lay out the issues in factual, objective terms. I have met countless members of different religious groups who told me their accounts of hardships and challenges they have faced—including imprisonment, loss of jobs, raids on their homes and places of worship, even torture—as they tried to practice their faith. The International Religious Freedom Report serves as a vehicle through which their stories are made known to the world, as we give voice to those who struggle to be heard. In shining a spotlight on abuses and restrictions, we aim to motivate governments to improve their practices and to offer support to those suffering those abuses.

There are other tools in our diplomatic toolbox. The Secretary of State designates Countries of Particular Concern for particularly severe violation of religious freedom, which results in presidential actions such as sanctions. We may take other actions against governments that abuse religious freedom at any time. For example, we have imposed sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, on more than two dozen Iranian government officials and institutions involved in serious human rights abuses and censorship, including violations of the religious freedom of members of Iranian religious minorities like the Bahai.

In addition to diplomatic approaches, the U.S. government uses programming to advance religious freedom and promote tolerance. Some of our recent efforts include programs to combat intolerance in Middle Eastern and Asian media; support for journalists focusing on religion issues; an interfaith youth leadership program in India; and a program in the Middle East to increase support among Muslim leaders for women’s rights. We implement these programs with a range of civil society partners.

Peace is not always found through diplomatic channels, or government actions. Yes, these are surely tools we employ, but I would challenge us all to think beyond conventional approaches and consider how civil society—those in religious institutions, nongovernment organizations, universities, and local groups—can promote religious tolerance and acceptance. In the area of religious freedom, it is critical to engage religious leaders themselves. I therefore make a point of engaging with leaders of all creeds and faiths to discuss ways to bridge religious divides.

Our ability to promote religious freedom as a key part of foreign policy is dependent on our diplomats, our Foreign Service Officers based overseas, and a whole of government approach here in Washington. This past year I have co-chaired the Religion and Foreign Policy working group, which is part of the Secretary’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. Through this initiative, we engaged new voices and built new relationships with civil society. I see quite a few of these members here today.

In 2012, this hard-working, dedicated group submitted two recommendations and a white paper to former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The first recommendation asked for guidance in what outreach to religious groups is permitted overseas by government representatives, vis-à-vis the first amendment and the “Establishment clause” (which Secretary Clinton accepted and instructed our lawyers to provide). The second recommendation called for additional training in religious literacy for civil and Foreign Service officers, focusing on the role of religion in foreign policy. We now offer a four-day course for Department of State employees on Religion and Foreign Policy, as well as segments addressing religious freedom in several tradecraft courses at the Foreign Service Institute.

In addition, we have launched a seminar series that includes participants from civil society and U.S. government agencies. At the first seminar in October, we brought together over 60 representatives from the Department of State, USAID, Department of Defense, and civil society partners to discuss how government and civil society could partner together on shared priorities to promote international religious freedom. This interagency conference sparked several follow-up meetings on religious engagement, how to advance religious tolerance, and address development challenges. Our second seminar will provide additional training for Foreign Service officers on interfaith dialogue as a means to combat violent extremism.

The third seminar will focus on the powerful role women of faith can play in conflict resolution. In my role as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, I often see the undeniable intersection of religious freedom and the rights of women. In Southeast Asia, many women encounter societal pressures that compel them to grant permission for their husbands to take additional wives based on tradition. I have also encountered government officials who support child marriage based on what they consider to be an approved practice within their religion. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about one-third of women aged 20-24 years old in the developing world were victims of child marriage. Thus, it is absolutely critical that we view religious freedom not just as a religious issue, but as an issue that promotes the rights of women around the globe. In a world where men tend to dominate formal religious leadership, women’s perspectives, needs, and unique leverage in their communities are often downplayed or ignored. So it is our duty to ensure that women’s voices are heard and that women are part of the solution.

Maryann Cusimano Love has long been a voice advocating for the inclusion of women in the peace building process…and I could not agree more. We have to hear the female voices of faith, for as we have seen in Liberia and Sierra Leone, women are frequently able to accomplish what traditional leaders could not: find peaceful ways to bridge ethnic divides. An integral part of promoting religious freedom and creating stable societies globally is ensuring that women are at the table when engaging religious leaders and grassroots, faith-based organizations. Including women in these discussions not only promotes respect for religious freedom, but tolerance and diversity across the whole of society.

What can civil society colleagues do? I urge you to continue to hold such conferences as this, to explore points of commonality with other faiths, to work together to promote religious freedom. Then spotlight your success stories and efforts undertaken in your media. When you encounter instances of religious intolerance—both here and abroad—speak up and speak out, for in this way, you give voice to the voiceless. When we protect the faith of one, we protect the faith of all.