Religious freedom: A U.S. founding principle

Group of people wearing religious clothing while praying (© Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewish community members gather in Meknes, Morocco, in May. Jewish heritage sites are being renovated under an initiative of the Kingdom of Morocco. (© Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Religious freedom is a core American value and a universal human right. It’s also a vital foreign policy priority, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said June 2.

“When the fundamental right of each person to practice their faith or to choose not to observe a faith is respected, people can make their fullest contributions to their community’s successes; entire societies are better off,” Blinken said.

But when governments deny this right, “it ignites tension, it sows division, it often leads to instability and conflict,” he added.

Blinken made his comments as he released the State Department’s 2021 International Religious Freedom Report. The annual report tracks religious freedom abuses and positive governmental or societal actions. The report also informs critical U.S. foreign policy decisions.

“religious freedom is the first freedom enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

~ Secretary OF STATE ANTONY Blinken

Notable progress

Several countries recorded significant steps to improve religious freedom in 2021. Examples include:

  • Morocco restored Jewish heritage sites such as synagogues and will include Jewish history in the school curriculum.
  • Iraq welcomed Pope Francis for the first papal visit to the nation, and the pope led Christian and interfaith services in several cities.
  • Timor-Leste‘s President José Ramos-Horta pledged to defend the rights of all citizens regardless of their religious background.
Pope waving to crowd (© Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)
In 2021, Iraq welcomed Pope Francis. It was the first papal visit to the country. (© Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

“Ultimately, this report is about spreading that kind of progress to more parts of the world,” Blinken said.

Abuses still widespread

Some governments continue to use blasphemy and apostasy laws to discriminate against religious minorities. Others, like restrictions on religious attire, curtail expressions of religious belief.

In his remarks, Blinken highlighted examples of threats to religious freedom, including:

  • Burma’s military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya. It also destroyed mosques, desecrated Korans and engaged in other abuses.
  • Eritrea only permits four religions to practice freely.
  • China continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups.

“All societies, including our own and across Europe, must do more to combat rising forms of hate, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment,” Blinken said.

Family looking out from hut (© Christian Sender/Getty Images)
A Rohingya family forced to flee Burma because of their faith are shown here in a refugee camp in Bangladesh in 2018. (© Christian Ender/Getty Images)

Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said no community is immune from abuses.

“Governments must speak out and protect the vulnerable and marginalized,” he said. “Religion can be such a powerful force for good, and it should never be used to harm people.”