Got news? State Department dropped required religious liberty reports?

A few readers sent along an interesting CNSNews.com report that says the U.S. State Department removed from its country reports on human rights those sections covering religious freedom:

The new human rights reports–purged of the sections that discuss the status of religious freedom in each of the countries covered–are also the human rights reports that include the period that covered the Arab Spring and its aftermath.

Thus, the reports do not provide in-depth coverage of what has happened to Christians and other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East that saw the rise of revolutionary movements in 2011 in which Islamist forces played an instrumental role.

For the first time ever, the State Department simply eliminated the section of religious freedom in its reports covering 2011 and instead referred the public to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report – a full two years behind the times – or to the annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was released last September and covers events in 2010 but not 2011.

I’m one of those people that loves to geek out on the international religious freedom reports, whether they be from the State Department or NGOs. And I have to admit I’ve found the information on religious freedom to be a bit weak in the last year, so my curiosity was piqued.

However, I don’t think this story is quite right. It’s true that the most recent State Department report only covers July 2010 to December 2010 and came out only this past September. So we’re way behind in a ton of information that would be very helpful to have — all of 2011 and much of this year. However, here’s what I found when I read the most recent report:

The Department of State submits this report to the Congress in compliance with section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. The law provides that the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, shall transmit to Congress “an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom.”

The Annual Report has historically covered a reporting period from July 1of one year through June 30 of the following year. The current Report, however, covers a six-month period from July 1, 2010, through December 31, 2010, because the Department of State is shifting to a calendar year reporting period.

And section 102(b)(1) of the International Religious Freedom Act says:

(1) DEADLINEFORSUBMISSION.—On September 1 of each year or the first day thereafter on which the appropriate House of Congress is in session, the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Ambassador at Large, and taking into consideration the recommendations of the Commission, shall prepare and transmit to Congress an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom supplementing the most recent Human Rights Reports by providing additional detailed information with respect to matters involving international religious freedom.

That most recent report was submitted on September 13, 2011. Presumably the next report, covering January 2011 through December 2011 will be submitted this September. This data is really delayed, certainly — the change in calendar year means the most recent data will be at least eight months late as opposed to just two months late, but this does seem to play a role in why the reports aren’t included in the annual report.

Incidentally, if the religious freedom (or, as RNS might put it, “religious freedom”) sections are only going to be taken from previous reports, that means we’ll see 2011 data in the late Spring of 2013 Human Rights report.

But there’s another problem with the CNS report. It says that religious freedom reports were dropped from the 2011 human rights report for the first time ever. But I don’t think that’s true. I first noticed that State redacted these in the 2010 reports, too. I don’t know why they’ve been dropped and whether this is a permanent issue or just an Obama administration thing , but you can compare Somalia’s “freedom of religion” sections in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 to see what I mean. So while 2009 said:

Although the TFC provides for religious freedom, this right was widely ignored in practice. The TFG generally did not enforce legal restrictions or protections concerning religious freedom.

On May 10, the TFG ratified legislation to implement Shari’a nationwide. In practice the TFG does not have the capacity or mechanisms to implement the legislation uniformly.

Militia groups, particularly those associated with al-Shabaab, often imposed a strict interpretation of Islam on communities under their control. There were reports that individuals who did not practice Islam in line with al-Shabaab’s interpretation were discriminated against, and several nonobservant Somalis may have been killed.

The TFC, Somaliland constitution, and Puntland Charter establish Islam as the official religion. Somalis are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims of a Sufi tradition. There also is a very small, extremely low-profile Christian community, in addition to small numbers of followers of other religions. The constitutions and Charters governing the various regions provide the right to study and discuss the religion of one’s choice; however, in practice freedom of worship for non-Muslims was respected only for non-Somalis. Conversion from Islam is not allowed in any of the three regions. The TFG and the Somaliland and Puntland administrations did not have the capacity to enforce freedom of worship. The number of adherents of strains of conservative Islam and Islamic schools supported by religiously conservative sources continued to grow.

In Puntland only Shafi’iyyah, a moderate Islamic doctrine followed by most citizens, is allowed in public religious expression. Puntland security forces closely monitored religious activities. Religious schools and places of worship must receive permission to operate from the Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs; such permission was granted routinely to schools and mosques espousing Shafi’iyyah.

In Somaliland religious schools and places of worship must obtain the Ministry of Religion’s permission to operate. Proselytizing for any religion except Islam is prohibited in Puntland and Somaliland and effectively blocked by informal social consensus elsewhere. Apart from restrictions imposed by the security situation, Christian-based international relief organizations generally operated freely as long as they refrained from proselytizing; however, there were reports that a few Somalis who converted to Christianity were killed by al-Shabaab and allied extremist groups during the year.

By 2010, the section simply said:

For a description of religious freedom, please see the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/j/drl/irf/rpt.

In 2011, the section said:

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/j/drl/irf/rpt.

And, as we mentioned, that’s still 2010 data.

Anyway, I think people are legitimately hungry for more information on religious freedom issues around the world, but I don’t think this CNS story got it quite right.

Map image via Shutterstock.

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  • http://decentfilms.com/ SDG

    I’m not sure I understand yet. Were the sections on religious freedom in previous State Department human rights reports simply redundant of the International Religious Freedom Report? Did they cover the data in different ways, or give it higher profile attention? Why did State Department human rights reports prior to 2010 have a separate section on religious freedom if the relevant data were already fully covered in a separate religious freedom report?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    SDG,
    If you read the law that authorizes the religious freedom reports, it says that the religious freedom report is due the first day of September (or the first day Congress is in session after that) and must also be included in the human rights reports for each country.

    I was sort of wondering if this linking out to the previous report fits either the spirit or letter of the law.

  • Ryan

    It would be interesting to explore why the State Department moved to a yearly schedule… Oh I know, things change so slowly nowadays and the digital age means we have less info available less quickly. Ahem.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ryan,

    Your comment reminds me that I meant to say in the post that there is still much for the media to cover when it comes to how the State Dept is handling religious freedom issues.

    I’d love to see a mainstream media report ask the type of questions you suggest — why in this day and age would we be less responsive to change, for instance.

  • Dave

    Your choice of Somalia may be instructive. I’m not aware of any changes in Somali polity over the last four years, so the religious-freedom situation has probably not altered and a reference to the earlier report is likely to be appropriate.

    Far more volatile, of course, is the situation of Christian and Indigenous religions where the Arab Spring has unleashed Islamist forces long held in check by secular dictators.

    BTW the Pagan site The Wild Hunt (via Patheos) is having a discussion of the fate of Pagans in the Middle East, kicked off with yesterday’s post and possibly even more critical than GetReligion.

  • Jerry

    This incident reminds us that we need to be skeptical about all news stories these days especially when sensational charges are involved as in this case. I do wish that in such cases we’d see internal investigations about why the mistake was made along with full disclosure of the findings.


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