Religious Freedom Commission Battles Hate and Critics
Elizabeth Prodromou on tracking discrimination
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been criticized for squabbling among its members and for being toothless. But commission co–vice chairman Elizabeth Prodromou, an assistant professor of international relations in the College of Arts & Sciences, says the bipartisan body that monitors religious repression around the world is making a determined and collaborative effort to improve religious freedom. The part-time, unpaid commissioners, appointed by the president and congressional leaders, are charged with recommending religion-infringing “countries of particular concern” (CPC) to the State Department, which then makes its own foreign policy recommendations. Making the cut can bring responses from a presidential naughty-naughty note to the offending nation to sanctions. The commission also keeps a watch list of countries to monitor for abuse of religious rights.
Religious strife may be eternal, but the same can’t be said of the commission, on which Prodromou is serving her third two-year term. (She herself is Greek Orthodox.) The body, created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, comes up for reauthorization next year. Prodromou says all signs are go for renewal, and she points to such accomplishments as the commission’s role in the release of religious-conscience prisoners in China and Vietnam. Yet critics say the group lacks fangs; only one country, the small African country of Eritrea, has suffered sanctions because of the commissioners’ recommendation. Last year, the commission recommended 13 countries of particular concern; the president, acting on State’s suggestions, listed 8.
Former Foreign Service diplomat Thomas Farr, who teaches religion and world affairs at Georgetown University, supports reauthorization and expects it to happen if Democrats control Congress next year. But even Farr says that Chinese officials “have begun to yawn” after making the list year after year “without any consequence whatsoever.” He has praise for Prodromou’s scholarship and “commitment to the value of religious freedom for all people.”
Offstage, the Washington Post reports, some commissioners get along as well as the Crusaders and Turks. Some claim the commission is overly focused on anti-Christian discrimination; a former staffer has filed a federal grievance, claiming she was dismissed because she’s Muslim and part of a Muslim advocacy group. Commissioners, including Imam Talal Eid of Massachusetts, deny the charge.
BU Today spoke with Prodromou about the role and the real authority of the commission, which will release new recommendations in May.
BU Today: Are there countries on last year’s list that you’re recommending be dropped or that some be added?
Prodromou: I can’t answer that with any certainty. We are engaged in the review process. Our hope is that the White House will take the recommendations under advisement. On the basis of national security, there may be a decision by the White House that that designation might not be prudent.
To what degree have countries been given more than just a tongue-lashing?
The first case where measures have been imposed because of the commission rather than preexisting sanctions is Eritrea. But there are other cases where commission recommendations have been taken into account — for example, curriculum redesign, so that countries remove language against religious minorities.
Is the attitude of countries, “You guys are toothless?”
That’s one of the critiques by those who wish we had more compliance tools. But to be designated a human rights violator is not something that any country wants.
Who are we to be meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign country?
This isn’t about making every country over in the image of the First Amendment. There are imperfections in the United States. But there is a legal system that works. For example, there’s a public debate about Guantanamo. That differentiates the United States from these countries, whether watch-list or CPC.
What are the most shocking conditions you’ve come across as a commissioner?
We went to Syria to meet with Iraqi refugees in 2008. Listening to them tell story after story — family members who had been killed before their eyes or their children who had been beaten by members of militias, or talking about how their children were now starving and had to turn to prostitution — I felt ashamed to be a human being. You’re sitting in a room with a lot of mothers who are weeping. Their agony is just because they all are people of faith. I remember coming back to the States. The next day, we were going to go to church. My daughter was complaining, “Aw, I don’t want to go to church.” And I told her, “Thank God there’s not going to be anyone outside with guns to shoot at us. Nobody’s going to come in our church and rip down our icons.”
There’s overwhelming evidence that if you have a human rights deficit, the chances of a robust democracy are limited. Do I think that religious freedom concerns always trump everything else? No. But looking at it in that zero-sum way isn’t helpful. The commission has been enriching our foreign policy by introducing religious freedom into other discussions.
Reportedly, squabbling among commissioners and a pro-Christian bias is rife. Do you dislike anyone, and does anyone dislike you?
I hope people don’t dislike me. I’ve never experienced the feeling. I disagree categorically with the article in the Post. This is a bipartisan body. Regardless of party differences, there’s been a determined and collaborative effort to improve religious freedom. As far as pro-Christian bias, that’s empirically false. There are many countries on the CPC and watch list with Muslim majorities. Take Saudi Arabia. India is a watch-list country because of violence between Muslims and Hindus. The countries that we visit are religiously plural.
Rich Barlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments