“Everyone Has the Right to Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion”
By C. Naseer Ahmad

US Department of State Annual Report on religious freedom around the world was released on July 30, 2012. The report underscores the importance of a key issue in international affairs. On the same day, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on the release of this report. In her introductory remarks, Jessica Matthews, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that Secretary Clinton’s “leadership could not have come at a more critical time. The US has deep political, economic and moral interests in the outcome of the Arab awakening.”

Religious liberty is “rooted in our Constitution, in our belief about the importance of the free exercise of religion. But it’s important to remember that these words were adopted by the international community, not just by the United States,” Secretary Clinton stated in making a forceful and effective case for freedom of religion around the world. Her remarks covered key topics: universal human rights, democracy, social cohesion and security. Secretary Clinton expressed concern that in some measures there is a trend of sliding backwards. She discussed religious freedoms in countries facing political transitions.

“More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom. New technologies have given repressive governments additional tools for cracking down on religious expression,” Secretary Clinton stated. “How will Islamist parties govern?” she was asked. It was an impression one could take from the questions arising after the speech. The anxiety appears to be from the political earthquake known as the Arab Spring. In answering the questions, she cautioned the world to be patient and not prejudge. While a number of countries were mentioned none was targeted for vilification.

Having participated in a meeting with the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group on development assistance issues, I heard personal testimony about how the lives of Kosovo Muslims were better off with such assistance. From this meeting at the Catholic Relief Services World Headquarters in Baltimore, I came back with an appreciation of the opportunities that exist for US citizens of different faiths joining hands and putting their words into action to change the lives of fellow human beings in need.

Secretary Clinton reminded the audience of the important principle that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” As such, there is no place for governmental organizations to dictate citizens on what faith to choose or interfere if individual citizens decide to change their faith.

Commenting on this speech, Joseph Grieboski, Chairman, Institute on Religion and Public Policy – a Washington-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) said, “Secretary Clinton’s remarks are by far the strongest, most aggressive, and most powerful on the importance of international religious freedom from any Secretary of State since the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Secretary Clinton set a clear and determined roadmap of where the United States will be going on the protection and promotion of this most fundamental of basic rights. I applaud the Secretary and her remarks, and encourage her to use the time remaining in her term to translate these words in solid and measurable actions.”

Participants in this foreign policy discussion event included representatives from embassies and from mainstream organizations like the Islamic Society of North America as well as other organizations of the different faiths that beautify the mosaic of American Society, not to mention participation of the President’s Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). They were there to listen, to learn, and to ask questions from the top diplomat in the US Government.

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