By Lauren Markoe
c. 2011 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) Often accused of ignoring religion as they craft foreign policy, the White House and State Department are trying to show that religion is a rising priority for U.S. diplomacy.
The most recent case in point: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Istanbul last week (July 15) promoted a new U.S.-backed international agreement to protect freedom of speech and religion, an accord described by her department as a "landmark" change.
"These are fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places," Clinton said, "and they are certainly essential to democracy."
Elsewhere in the State Department, its school for Foreign Service officers rolled out a new course last month on how diplomats can practice "religious engagement."
And the National Security Council is touting a new partnership with the White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which represents a "renewed focus on the intersection of religion and foreign policy across the United States government," faith-based director Joshua DuBois wrote in a July 11 blog post.
Skeptics, however, say religion must be a key consideration at all levels of statecraft, and recent efforts, however admirable, only begin to address that shortfall.
The agreement Clinton touted in Istanbul aims to replace what has been the prevailing international response to acts considered defamatory against Islam, such as Quran burnings and inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslim-majority countries, working through the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, have often introduced and passed resolutions in the U.N.'s Human Rights Council, and its predecessor body, banning speech that defames religion.
In March, however, the U.S. and other Western nations convinced the OIC to back a plan that instead prescribes education, public debate and interfaith dialogue to counteract religious intolerance.
"It's making the world safer for religious minorities who want to be free to practice their religion and express their views without fear of being accused of blasphemy," said Suzanne Nossel, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.
In Istanbul, Clinton met with Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, head of the OIC -- which calls itself "the collective voice of the Muslim world" -- to discuss ways of implementing the March agreement.
"Together we have begun to overcome the false divide that pits religious sensitivities against freedom of expression," Clinton said. "We are pursuing a new approach based on concrete steps to fight intolerance wherever it occurs."
Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, welcomed the new approach. The former diplomat was a guest instructor in June at the Foreign Service Institute, where about 30 diplomats signed up for a three-day seminar on religion and diplomacy.
Farr supports legislation introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., however, that would make religion a mandatory part of Foreign Service training, and more frequent for Foreign Service officers. Wolf has long criticized the State Department for failing to vigorously address religious intolerance abroad.
Farr also welcomed the partnership between the NSC and the faith-based office, which the White House heralded as "the first-ever Interagency Working Group on Religion and Global Affairs."
Still, Farr said, the faith-based office is primarily a domestic agency that's not designed to tackle international relations, and "the State Department has not and still does not do religion very well."
As for the so-called Istanbul Communique on freedom of speech and religion, "it's wonderful to address this issue at the U.N. but it doesn't address the problem at the national level."
"At the root of Islamic extremism there seems to be an idea, broadly accepted through the Middle East," Farr said, "that God is pleased by the punishment and the killing of those who offend Islam."
Former U.S. Ambassador Randolph Bell, who runs the First Freedom Center, a Virginia-based religious freedom watchdog group, similarly welcomed the latest moves to take religious considerations more seriously in American diplomacy.
"Anything that's done to increase the overall familiarity of Foreign Service officers with the relationship between freedom of religion and U.S. interests is a plus," said Bell.
But he also cautioned that the interfaith dialogue called for in the Istanbul agreement does not diminish Americans' responsibility to doggedly defend religious freedom, both at home and abroad.
"We are by no means inimical to interfaith dialogue," said Bell. "But it should never be a substitute for the monitoring of rights."