State Department Is AWOL on Religious Liberties
This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Ken Blackwell was published March 15, 2011 on The American Spectator website.
Last May 31 in Afghanistan, a world away from American backyard barbeques and military parades, Sayeed Mussa vanished into thin air. Mr. Mussa was spirited away to an unknown location to be executed for his faith in Jesus Christ. No, his captors were not the Taliban insurgents but Afghanistan government officials, bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers and defended by American troops.
As President Obama proclaimed January 16th to be “Religious Freedom Day,” he declared that “the United States stands with those who advocate for free religious expression and works to protect the rights of all people to follow their conscience, free from persecution and discrimination.” If the Obama Administration is working to promote religious freedom across the globe at all, it’s not working very hard.
Mr. Mussa’s plight is a case in point. The United States has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to liberate the Afghan people from the Taliban’s theocratic tyranny yet Christians and other religious minorities are frequently harassed and jailed for exercising a core right in any free and democratic state.
Mr. Mussa, who lost his own leg to a landmine, was arrested on his way home from his work at the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent where he helped fit fellow Afghan amputees with prosthetics. The father-of-six was inspired by the selflessness of Christian aid workers and converted to Christianity. When Afghani TV profiled Mr. Mussa in a story on Christians in Kabul, he was imprisoned in a secret facility where he was raped and beaten by his jailers and fellow inmates.
After Mussa disappeared, his wife reached out for help to find her husband. When word reached the halls of Congress in early June, Congressman Frank Wolf and the International Religious Freedom Caucus contacted the State Department immediately. The silence from State was deafening. After much prodding from Caucus coordinator Tina Ramirez, Foggy Bottom finally responded to Wolf’s initial letter three months later by advising “extreme caution in raising alarm; [religious minorities] are best protected by as little public attention as possible.” The Red Cross, Mussa’s former employer, washed their hands of Mussa and blamed the Afghan Christian for his fate.
Mr. Mussa’s location and his appalling conditions were serendipitously discovered at the end of July, without the help of the State Department, Red Cross, or Afghan government. Afghan authorities refused to inform Mussa of his crime and denied him visits with his foreign lawyer. His jailers repeatedly pressured him to recant his faith. An Afghan lawyer refused to take the case until Mussa recanted. He refused.
The Congressional International Religious Freedom Caucus and Ms. Ramirez, now at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, kept the pressure up on the State Department. A flurry of letters and calls from Caucus leader Rep. Trent Franks pushed reluctant U.S. officials to act. Once they did, the Afghan government moved Mussa to a safer and more humane facility in October. Mussa’s trial was delayed and he was finally released in late February, nine months after he was first jailed.
Although Mr. Mussa’s story has a relatively happy ending, it points to a more pernicious reality — that the State Department is abandoning its commitment to a core right in any free society — the freedom of faith and conscience. Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. government must engage foreign governments to promote religious liberty and take punitive action where appropriate.
The Obama Administration and State Department in particular pay lip service to this policy but through inaction aid and abet the persecution of religious minorities the world over. The State Department reported that religious liberties had “deteriorated” in 2010 but declined to list Afghanistan as a Country of Particular Concern. For another Afghan Christian Shoaib Said Assadullah who still faces a death sentence for apostasy, the State Department’s ineffectual hand-wringing is cold comfort. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that religious liberty is “a cornerstone of a healthy society,” but it is appallingly clear that the Administration does not consider religious liberty to be worth its time or efforts. If Afghanistan routinely undercuts religious liberty, what kind of society are we helping to build there?
As Americans, we expect our foreign policy to be in line with our values. American allies and partners like Afghanistan should be expected to respect core freedoms like religious liberty. As a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Afghanistan already has an obligation to protect religious liberty. The United States must insist that the Karzai government uphold its international commitments and adhere to the core values of a free society by codifying protections for religious liberty into Afghan law.
American soldiers and Marines, many of them devout Christians, are dying to protect Afghans from theocratic tyranny. The State Department must do its duty and see to it that Kabul honors those hard-fought freedoms.