The U.S. State Department wasn't surprised last October when Egyptian security forces smashed into flocks of demonstrators outside the state Radio and Television Building, killing 25 and injuring hundreds.
After all, the rally was called to protest the government's failure to stop the burning of Coptic Orthodox churches or to arrest and convict leaders of the mobs. Sure enough, waves of thugs attacked the Copts, starting riots that drew deadly police vehicles.
Once again, it didn't shock State Department insiders that no one was held accountable. Coptic Christians and other religious minorities continue to live in fear.
Similar tragedies have been sadly predictable in the past, but that must change if true democracy is going to come to Egypt and other lands struggling to escape centuries of strife, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks marking the recent release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.
"Egyptians are building a brand new democracy," said Clinton, describing her recent visit there. "As I told the Christians with whom I met, the United States does not take the side of one political party over another. What we do is stand firmly on the side of principles. Yes, we do support democracy -- real democracy, where every citizen has the right to live, work and worship how they choose. ...
"We are prepared to work with the leaders that the Egyptian people choose. But our engagement with those leaders will be based on their commitment to universal human rights and universal democratic principles."
The "sobering" reality, she stressed, is that religious freedom is "sliding backwards" worldwide, with more than a billion people living under regimes that deny them freedom of speech, association and liberty on matters of faith. The State Department once again released its familiar list of notorious "countries of particular concern" -- Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
This latest report is packed with telling details that are hard to ignore, said Thomas Farr, director of Georgetown University's Project on Religious Freedom. He served as the first director of the State Department office on international religious freedom.
The problem is that America's ambassador at large for international religious freedom has "little authority, few resources and a bureaucracy that is -- notwithstanding the secretary's fine words -- largely indifferent" to the global state of religious freedom, noted Farr, in remarks posted at National Review Online. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this issue is not a priority for this administration, except perhaps for the speechwriters (who are doing an outstanding job)."
In her speech, Clinton did address a few hot topics that have previously been out of bounds, such as blasphemy laws. It's time for Americans to realize, she said, that matters of faith and conscience are often life-and-death concerns -- literally.
"Certain religions are banned completely, and a believer can be sentenced to death," she said. "Strict laws ban blasphemy and defamation of religion. And when your words are interpreted as violations of those laws, you can be sentenced to death. Violence toward religious minorities often goes unpunished by authorities who look the other way.
"So the message is clear: If your beliefs don't have government approval, beware."
When Americans defend religious freedom they are not simply defending values found in this land's laws and creeds. They are also defending a key central tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, Clinton quoted Article 18: "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."
It's impossible to read those words, she said, without realizing that "religious freedom is not just about religion." It's about unbelievers, heretics, apostates and converts being able to live, think and gather in safety without the "state looking over their shoulder." Without freedom of conscience, said Clinton, democracy is not safe.
"You can't debate someone who believes that anyone who disagrees with him by definition disagrees with God," she said. "So let me simply say this: People can believe that they and only those like them possess the one and only truth. That's their right, though they do not have the right to harm those they think harbor incorrect views."
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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