Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Needed: a sense of urgency about religious freedom in US foreign policy

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 19, 2011

Not a single Christian church remains standing in Afghanistan. A decade ago, American troops began a military campaign in that country to oust the oppressive Taliban regime. Well, the Taliban have been ousted—at least from the central national government—and the new government is ostensibly an American ally. But a decade later, the situation facing any Christians who remain in Afghanistan remains oppressive. The poor people of Afghanistan may have seen some improvement in their lot during the past ten years—that is debatable—but in terms of religious freedom nothing has changed.

It was early in October that we learned about the demolition of Afghanistan’s last remaining Christian church. But the building was actually destroyed in March 2010; about 18 months passed before the US State Department passed the news along to the American people. Apparently it was not considered a high-priority concern for US foreign policy.

Does the US government take religious freedom seriously? If so, how is it possible that after a decade of intense involvement, we have not made any provisions for religious freedom in Afghanistan? How is it that after more than two decades of US involvement in Iraq, Christians there face a steadily deteriorating situation?

Foreign policy is a complex business. Countries have many different goals, and limited means to achieve those goals. Even a superpower cannot fashion the world entirely to fit its preferences. (Our recent military adventures have served to underline that reality.) American troops did not go into Afghanistan for the cause of religious freedom; we intervened to drive Al Qaida out of its sanctuaries there. We did not invade Iraq to make life easier for Christians, but to unseat a brutal and dangerous tyrant. We were largely successful in achieving those goals. But in the process—and in the aftermath—American policy-makers have forgotten something.

Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator. But under his regime—bloody as it was—Christians worshipped in relative security. Now, under the more democratic government that was installed with the help of American military might, Christians face a systematic campaign to drive them out of the country. Prominent Christians are tracked down and killed, execution-style, by Muslim extremists. Churches are bombed with alarming regularity. The violence against Christians is not abating as Iraq’s new government settles into power; on the contrary, 2010 saw a new peak in anti-Christian violence.

Yes, the Iraqi people are free from Saddam Hussein. But the ancient Christian communities of Iraq, which trace their proud lineage back to a time when Islam did not even exist, are not free to prosper. In July, when Christians in Kirkuk opened a new church, it was the first new Christian church to open in Iraq since the 2003 American invasion.

But then, there is no urgent need for new churches, since Iraqi Christians are in flight. The country’s Christian population had been cut in half, and more, by the successful intimidation campaign and the subsequent flight of families looking for security elsewhere. For all the influence that Washington wields in Baghdad, we have not managed to halt the violence against the country’s religious minority, nor to curb the Christian exodus.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the forces of Al Qaida were long ago driven from their sanctuaries. Still American forces keep battling to stabilize the new Afghani regime, with its appalling record on religious freedom.

And when Al Qaida’s terrorist leaders left Afghanistan, where did they go? To Pakistan, apparently, to “hide in plain sight” on the territory of another putative American ally. Before closing that chapter of our story, let’s take a look at Pakistan’s record on religious freedom: Christians sentenced to death for blasphemy, after being convicted on fraudulent charges; a provincial governor murdered for suggesting a change in the blasphemy law, and Islamic leaders applauding his death; Christian girls kidnapped, forced to convert and to marry Muslim men; bombings at Catholic schools; flood relief denied to Christian families; a leading Christian political figure assassinated. The record is unrelievedly bleak. Yet this, too, is an American ally, in whose country the US has projected enormous influence during the past decade.

The US State Department lists Pakistan and Iraq—along with other “friendly” nations such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia—among the world’s worst offenders on matters of religious freedom. The Pew Forum ranks religious-freedom violations in two different categories: countries with government restrictions on worship and countries in which religious minorities face intense public hostility. In the Pew listing, 3 out of the 5 countries with the most severe legal restrictions on faith (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China) have friendly relations with the US, as do 4 out of the 5 where religious minorities face the greatest hostility (Iraq, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan).

This year American leaders voiced their enthusiasm for the “Arab Spring” uprisings that ran through the Middle East. We were excited by the prospects for popular rule in Egypt; now we see that a regime more in tune with public opinion is also more disposed to allow the slaughter of Coptic Christians. Our government has signaled support for a regime change in Syria, and few Americans would be sad to see the Assad regime fall. But in Syria today, Christians worship freely; would the same be true if Assad were ousted by a populist rebellion, and Islamic militants came to the fore?

There are many different interests that go into the foreign-policy meat grinder, and the US has many different reasons (or should I say temptations?) to tolerate imperfect regimes. We support democracy, and so we smile on regimes that are inching their way toward free elections, even if they lag on religious liberty. We support free trade, and so we encourage commerce with countries that are opening their markets, even if they are not opening churches. This is all understandable; sometimes quiet, persistent encouragement is more effective than blunt criticism and posturing. But again, do we have any reassurance—do we have any sign at all—that religious freedom figures prominently among the State Department’s priorities?

The answer, regrettably, is No. Nor can we blame the Obama administration exclusively for the failure to emphasize religious-freedom issues. Most of the questionable alliances mentioned above were formed and flourished under previous US administrations. The Obama administration was painfully slow to provide a head for the State Department’s office for religious freedom. But the Republican Party was equally slow to call attention to that long delay. Now today we learn that a block in the Senate is threatening the continued existence of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, and again there are no public howls of protest. Neither political party has shown any special interest in this issue.

Who should we blame, then? We should blame ourselves: the American people. We do live in a democratic society, and if the voters demanded a stronger emphasis on religious freedom abroad, our leaders would be forced to oblige. So what are our priorities? Would we rather have our diplomats press for an end to restrictions on the “underground” churches in China, or ensure the continued supply of inexpensive parts for our iPhones? We have one result now; would we trade it for the other?

American liberals and conservatives have their own competing foreign-policy goals. Advocates of free trade will always have a say—and an incentive to lobby in Washington for their preferred policies. But there is no natural constituency for religious freedom, unless it is the great, quiet body of American believers. If we American Christians do not rally our political forces to protect our brothers in other countries, no one else will.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Oct. 20, 2011 11:52 AM ET USA

    1. At home many leading American politicians appear to treat faith and churches as something useful for political purposes. If it is not seen as useful in another country there is no higher value commitment that puts it on their radar. 2. Many in the Evangelical community do not consider the "ancient Christian communities" as true Christians. To the degree that religious political influence in Washington is predominantly Evangelical, "ancient Christian communities" are not on the radar.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 20, 2011 11:42 AM ET USA

    Relately, things under Saddam were tolerable for Chaldeans. Not to overly defend Saddam, but he was handed a manufactured country in the 60s of disparate peoples, of whom some can be quite violent. A strong hand is required to hold that together. I talked with a Chaldean priest 3 yrs ago about Iraqis and he said Saddam got crazy toward the end, but it was unclear if he meant before or after the first war. Perhaps we should have left him alone the first time. Democracy is not for all countries.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 20, 2011 11:26 AM ET USA

    I agree with the thrust of your article, but clarification is in order on Afghanistan. The last church news is from a State Dept report. On the SD website, the earliest report is from 2000. No numbers are given of churches, but it talks only of foreigners having access. On radio yrs ago, a Prot. missionary from the '70s told of Muslims unearthing bldgs looking for "underground churches". He linked the USSR invasion with the persecution of Afghani Christians in the '70s. Things started long ago

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Oct. 20, 2011 1:45 AM ET USA

    In the Church rights and duties are said to be "essential and inseparable" and call all the Baptized to exercise the mission of the Church in the world, taking into account the common good of the Church, the rights of others and their own duties toward others. One of those duties is to acknowledge the right of every person to practice his religion and to choose and live his vocation free from external coercion and threats. Accordingy, we are also called to defend this fundamental human right.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Oct. 19, 2011 9:03 PM ET USA

    The problem is, those of us who DO care about religious freedom abroad also care about it at home, where it is also threatened, by the Obama administration's policies, and it's cooperation with anti-family, anti-life organizations. We won't be free to assist overseas until we're assured we are free at home. And given the current economy, most folks are stretched as it is, and cannot support charities as they might otherwise. But, if we cannot give $'s, we can at least pray for our brethren.