BU Today

In the World

Religious Freedom Commission Battles Hate and Critics

Elizabeth Prodromou on tracking discrimination


Elizabeth Prodromou, a CAS international relations assistant professor, says the chances of a robust democracy are limited in countries that have a human rights deficit.

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?
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 barlowr@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Religious Freedom Commission Battles Hate and Critics

  • Anonymous on 03.22.2010 at 12:19 pm

    I would like to point out that much reporting on the Orissa violence between Christians and Hindus in the recent clashes was heavily skewed in favour of the Christian victims without giving due coverage to the grievances of the Hindus in the region…Prodomou’s claim that the group is not free of pro-Christian bias is unfounded and not surprisingly, this group’s own flaws are being exposed…The issues in Saudi Arabia and India are oriented around giving Christian missionaries free rein in propagating with coercion and bribery their faith over a poor or marginalized population, subverting issues of national sovereignty completely.

  • Anonymous on 03.23.2010 at 4:24 pm

    If you would like to point them out...

    If you would like to point them out, please post a link or two to support your viewpoint. I am not so much interested in which country had which media bias, but if you have something to back up “The issues in Saudi Arabia and India are oriented around giving Christian missionaries free rein..” please post a link or two

  • Anonymous on 03.23.2010 at 5:48 pm

    Anti-Hindi Bias


    co-founder, Hindu American Foundation

    Aseem Shukla

    Associate Professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school. Co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation.

    Anti-Hindu Bias at U.S. Commission

    This week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India on its “watch list.” By this designation, India, the largest multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy joins a motley cabal comprised of the likes of Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Somalia and Venezuela. Countries like Bangladesh, that so recently forced the exodus of thousands of Hindus under an Islamist government, enjoy higher status with the Commission than India. How is this possible?
    The watch list defines those countries that the USCIRF believes are in danger of being listed among the worst offenders of religious freedom. The government of India reacted predictably to this rather dubious distinction, “regretted” the action, said India guaranteed freedom of religion and aberrations are dealt “within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media.”
    A closer look at the India designation, however, shows the Commission’s innate bias, lack of insight, absence of understanding, and loss of credibility. Worse, putting India on the watch list will be perceived as a self-defeating and egregious act that needlessly complicates relations between two diverse, pluralistic and secular democracies.
    Created by Congress in 1998, the Commission can only advise the State Department, which has its own list of countries of concern and amiably ignores the Commission’s recommendations. But the Commission’s pronouncements still carry the symbolism of an official government entity judging the fitness of another’s country’s human rights record.

    There is power in symbolism, and the attention credible human rights groups bring to a cause gives succor to the oppressed and isolate the oppressor . But therein lies the rub– credibility–and the USCIRF, in its composition, methodology and ideology, is running low on gas.
    Let’s begin with the India chapter in the USCIRF report itself. In its 11 pages, the document details three specific episodes to justify slamming India: Riots between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat that broke out after a Muslim mob torched a train full of Hindu pilgrims killing 58 in 2002; riots between Hindus and Christians that left 40 dead in the state of Orissa in 2008 after a Hindu priest, long opposed by fanatic missionaries, was murdered; a brief incident where miscreants attacked “prayer halls” built by the New Life Church — a revivalist Protestant group — that had distributed a pamphlet denigrating Hindu Gods and Goddesses and allegedly engaged in mass conversions of Hindus.
    These three episodes in a country of a billion condemn an entire nation?

    Incredibly, the Commission’s India chapter paints a portrait of minority religions on the run in India, pursued by a rabid Hindu majority! This in a country whose last President was Muslim, whose leader of the largest political party is Christian and whose Prime Minister is Sikh. In contrast, behold the shrill outcry when our own President Obama was alleged to be Muslim!

    A terrible riot that left hundreds of Muslims and Hindus dead and occurred closer to a decade ago mandates an entire section, but the ongoing attacks by jihadis in India’s Kashmir targeting Hindus; several recent bombings in Hindu temples carried out by Islamists, and Hindu temple desecrations in Christian Goa; and an analysis into the incendiary results of attempts to convert Hindus by coercive means fail any mention at all.

    Indian Americans know the story of the subcontinent, and without an exploration of these original sins that sparked riots, is to tell half a story–a problem now wholly the Commission’s.

    India’s history–beginning with the bloody partition of the country by religion into East Pakistan (1947)/Bangladesh (1971) and Pakistan in 1947 –created a tinderbox of tension. But a land that gave birth to Hinduism and Buddhism–a Mahatma Gandhi and a syncretic Muslim emperor like an Akbar centuries before were both defined by these traditions–offered a unique experiment that sought to replicate what our own Founding Fathers did here: create a secular, inclusive democracy.

    That experiment is put to a singularly arduous trial by the machinations of Pakistan that sees its identity as an Islamic nation threatened by India’s pluralism — its adventures in Mumbai in 2008 and Kashmir massacres are examples. And a small minority of Indian Muslims choose the ideology of the Taliban rather than embrace that of the great Pashtun, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the patriot whose non-violent struggle against the concept of carving a piece of India into Pakistan is legendary–reactionary Hindu groups form and trouble brews. It is in this context that terrible riots too often validate devious provocateurs–and a point that sadly eludes the USCIRF.

    Then there is the explosive issue of coerced conversions in India. Today, the largest aid donor to India is not the government of any country. Nearly half a billion dollars are sent to India under the auspices of Christian missionary organizations. Some of these groups are involved in truly uplifting work amongst the poorest, but the underlying subtext for some churches is a bargain: convert and we will help. The New York Times famously reported on evangelical tsunami aid organizations disproportionately lavishing help on those communities that agreed to convert. Legions of converts testify to the pressure they received in the form of a job, medical aid, education — if they just agreed to change their faith. Families are turned against families and communities — a potent brew that also raises tensions that can escalate. And when these evangelical groups proclaim their work and their scores of new converts couched in colorful videos at suburban megachurches, the dollars flow and enrich itinerant missionary mercenaries — a fact blithely ignored by the Commission.

    Examine the makeup of the USCIRF: Six members are Christian, one is Jewish and one Muslim. Not a single non-Abrahamic faith is represented. The chair is Vice President of the far-right Federalist Society, and another commissioner is an executive at the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, which publishes material which calls Hinduism grand festival of Diwali “devil worship.”

    Finally, Hindu Americans are wondering today if there is quid pro quo at work. The USCIRF was denied a visa this month to travel to India for a “fact-finding” trip. But the Commission was clear that it would not visit Kashmir (because of threats by Muslim terrorists) nor the Northeast of India where militant Christian terrorists are displacing Hindus and fighting for separatism. It would not look into Hindu temple desecrations in Goa and other attacks. It only wanted to visit Gujarat and Orissa. The Government of India said, “thanks, but no thanks.” The USCIRF was outraged at the denial, and we can only ponder whether this was payback.

    By Aseem Shukla | August 14, 2009; 9:57 AM ET Save & Share:
    Previous: Romance Requires Showing Up and Staying Apart | Next: Health Care: A Moral Imperative For Any Decent American

  • Trelawney on 03.27.2010 at 10:54 pm


    I just want to mention that Elizabeth Prodromou is extremely intelligent and works very hard, in every context in which I have seen her operate, to be unbiased and balanced. Dealing with these issues, by their very nature, it is virtually impossible to issue conclusions which please everyone or will not be accused of bias. My recommendation is that any individuals who question her conclusions or her impartiality contact her directly to discuss the issues, before forming any conclusions about her work.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)