Diplomacy, Religious Freedom and the Real World

William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs 
Remarks to the 30th Annual Appeal of Conscience Foundation's Religious Seminar at FSI
Arlington, VA
February 17, 2011

Good morning. Thank you very much for that kind introduction. I’m honored to be here today to recognize this important milestone -- the thirty-year collaboration between two great institutions -- Rabbi Schneier’s Appeal of Conscience Foundation and our own National Foreign Affairs Training Center.

As I’m sure an audience of 600 diplomats can attest, our profession has a well-deserved reputation for long-windedness. But I'll do my best to break that stereotype this morning.

I would like to begin today by recognizing Rabbi Schneier -- for whom I have the greatest personal admiration -- a man of tremendous compassion and intellect. For nearly half a century, Rabbi Schneier has appealed to our conscience -- to our sense of humanity -- by promoting tolerance and respect among all people -- inspiring us to help perfect an imperfect world -- and advancing the noble cause of peace across the globe.

As a young man, Rabbi Schneier fled his homeland in Austria and survived the Holocaust as a refugee. As President Clinton said when he presented him the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, Arthur Schneier “knows … firsthand the consequences of hatred and intolerance, and has devoted his life to fighting them.”

Rabbi Schneier -- on behalf of Secretary Clinton, I am proud to recognize our thirty-year collaboration with you, and it’s an honor to join you today in advancing the work of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, whose importance grows as each year passes.

The evolution of this annual seminar is a reflection of how much the world has changed over the last 30 years. In 1980, the world was defined largely by the Cold War and an international order organized largely around Soviet-American rivalry. Accordingly, the theme of the inaugural seminar was “Religious Life in Communist Countries.”

Three decades later, the world is a much different place -- increasingly multipolar and profoundly interdependent. The interconnectedness of human society can fuel economic, social and political change across the globe ever more quickly -- with dramatic political tremors in Tunisia helping to produce a political earthquake in Egypt within only a few historic weeks.

Yet it’s a world where far too many countries suffer from closed systems, produce too little diversification, too few jobs, and too few outlets for political expression, generating far too much intolerance and extremism, distorting and undermining the fundamental values that we share.


Among the most fundamental of those universal values is religious freedom. Our own Founding Fathers made religious freedom the first freedom of the Constitution -- giving it pride of place among those liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom has fostered a culture in which all faith communities -- from the largest denominations to the smallest local congregations -- can openly practice their respective religions alongside their neighbors. And we take pride and draw inspiration from the fact that America today is among the world’s most religiously diverse nations.

Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton are deeply committed to promoting all aspects of freedom of religious belief and expression. Commenting on the profound and deeply moving journey made by the people of Egypt in recent weeks, President Obama pointed to the peoples of faith praying together in Tahrir Square and chanting “Muslims, Christians, we are one,” as an example that we need not be defined by our differences, but rather defined by the common humanity we share.

That includes the right to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to change one’s religion -- by choice, not coercion, or to practice no religion at all. And it includes the rights of faith communities to come together in social service and public engagement in the broader society.

These are not only American rights -- they are the rights of nations and people around the world -- 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.

It is profoundly in the strategic interest of the United States to promote religious freedom. As Secretary Clinton recently stated, “Societies in which freedom of religion and speech flourish are more resilient, more stable, more peaceful, and more productive.”

Advancing religious freedom is both an age-old goal and a modern challenge. According to a Pew Forum study, approximately 70 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where religious freedom is severely restricted. Most of these people live under threat from authoritarian regimes that abuse their own citizens, from violent extremist groups that exploit and inflame sectarian tensions, and from the quiet but persistent threat caused by intolerance and mistrust that can leave minority religious groups vulnerable and marginalized. As Rabbi Schneier himself has observed, “Religion is like fire -- it can warm but it can also destroy.”

From the oppression that groups like the Baha’i face in Iran or the growing legal pressure that conservative Muslim women in France now confront over covering their faces publicly, to attacks on the Sufi, Shia, and Ahmadiyya holy sites in Pakistan and against Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Burma, to the harsh restrictions placed on Tibetan Buddhists in China, the global advance of religious freedom faces many obstacles.

As diplomats posted overseas, you both personify our nations’ commitment to religious freedom, as well as advocate for its achievement,

· by contributing to the annual “International Religious Freedom Report;

· by engaging faith-based groups, as powerful catalysts for development and social action;

· by combating violent extremism through helping moderate voices to compete in the marketplace of ideas;

· by employing your linguistic skills to participate in vigorous public diplomacy that promotes religious freedom and ecumenical dialogue; and

· by embedding respect for religious freedom in multilateral institutions. At the UN Human Rights Council, for instance, we continue to take aim at the historically divisive “Combating Defamation of Religions” resolution that proposes to protect religious freedom by banning speech that is critical or offensive about religion. As Secretary Clinton said, “freedom of speech and freedom of religion emanate from the same fundamental belief that communities and individuals are enriched and strengthened by a diversity of ideas.”

I know that I've just scratched the surface of the opportunities and challenges in advancing religious freedom in the world today.

Of course, we recognize that much more needs to be done. But we can be heartened when we hear that in Syria and Turkey, the Grand Muftis have spoken out publically, urging tolerance towards Christians and Jews; or that in Spain, special prosecutors have been appointed to focus on hate crimes; or that in Brazil, the government has created an office and published a guide to combat racism and religious intolerance.

For our part, the United States will continue to build bridges to promote international religious freedom, recognizing the unmistakable truth in what the President said in Tucson last month, “the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” I hope that each of you will find, throughout your own careers, a way to advance this great endeavor.

In closing, I again want to offer my profound appreciation to you, Rabbi Schneier, for an extraordinary thirty-year collaboration, and for all that we will do together in the years to come.

Thank you.