The Obama administration and religious freedom advocates applauded the U.N. Human Rights Council's passage of a resolution on religious intolerance that -- unlike "defamation of religions" measures approved since 1999 -- protects individuals from discrimination or violence based on their beliefs. Those "defamation of religions" resolutions approved for the last 12 years by U.N. bodies have focused on protecting religion, primarily Islam.
Opponents have charged the "defamation of religions" resolutions, which have been promoted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), would harm global religious freedom and provide support for blasphemy laws like those in some Muslim states.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a written statement the resolution passed March 24 "represents a significant step forward in the global dialogue on countering intolerance, discrimination, and violence against persons based upon religion or belief."
The U.N. Human Rights Council's vote in Geneva, Switzerland, came barely three weeks after Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan's government, was assassinated. Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities affairs, had courageously worked for repeal of the country's blasphemy laws, which call for death for those who leave or "insult" Islam. A radical Islamic organization identified with the Taliban took credit for the March 2 killing.
Two months before, Salman Taseer was killed by a bodyguard because the governor of the Punjab province opposed the Muslim-dominated country's blasphemy laws.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), commended the U.N. council's decision but said, "Tragically, it took the assassinations of two prominent Pakistani officials who opposed that country's draconian blasphemy laws ... to convince the OIC that the annual defamation of religions resolutions embolden extremists rather than bolster religious harmony."
USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea reported a week before the U.N. body's vote that neither Pakistan's delegate, who frequently introduced "defamation of religions" resolutions in the past, nor any other OIC representative was expected to introduce such a measure at this meeting. She was told Bhatti's assassination doomed such an effort.
"Even the notoriously cynical Human Rights Council, it seems, can no longer pass it with a straight face," said Shea in a March 17 blog post at National Review Online.
Leo said in a written statement that USCIRF "is gratified that this new resolution recognizes that religious intolerance is best fought through efforts to encourage respect for every individual's human rights, not through national or international anti-blasphemy laws. What is needed now is for countries, such as Pakistan, that have blasphemy laws to eliminate them."
Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., has introduced a bill designed to promote religious liberty in Pakistan and other countries in the region. His proposal, H.R. 440, would establish a special envoy at the State Department to monitor religious freedom for minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Southern Baptist religious liberty specialist Richard Land endorsed Wolf's legislation in a March 21 letter to the congressman.
He told Wolf the assassinations of Bhatti and Taseer "are not isolated, and they must not continue unchecked. Regrettably, our government's response to date has been inadequate at best."
Wolf's proposal would place the United States in a better position "to help secure protection for countless beleaguered individuals now living in fear of reprisal for their faith," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and a USCIRF commissioner.
Under Wolf's legislation, the 31 countries monitored by a special envoy would include Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan and Yemen.
On the same day his letter went to Wolf, Land also spoke out against the repressive regime in the East African country of Eritrea. Writing in The Washington Times, fellow USCIRF Commissioner Talal Y. Eid and Land said their commission has urged the U.S. government to bar foreign companies from raising capital in the United States that would be used to explore for gold and other minerals in Eritrea. Such development would enrich the government of Eritrea, which consistently imprisons and tortures evangelical Christians and members of other minority religious groups.
The State Department has designated Eritrea as one of eight "countries of particular concern" (CPC), a category reserved for the world's worst violators of religious freedom.
Since 2002, USCIR has called for the State Department to designate Pakistan as a CPC, but it has yet to do so.
Not only the U.N. Human Rights Council but the U.N. General Assembly and Third Committee have approved "defamation of religions" resolutions in recent years. Support in the General Assembly has declined every year since 2006.
The 57-member OIC has been the primary force behind the proposal since its inception. In her statement, Clinton thanked the OIC for its leadership in the March 24 vote for the new resolution.
In addition to the State Department, USCIRF, the ERLC and other religious freedom advocates have worked for defeat of "defamation of religions" resolutions. In October, Barrett Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy, and representatives from other religious liberty groups met with about 25 country delegations in New York City to express their opposition to such measures.
USCIRF is a nine-member panel that advises the White House, State Department and Congress regarding the condition of religious liberty overseas. The president and congressional leaders select its commissioners.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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