arlier this year, the United States State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad published its Interim Report to the Secretary of State and the President.
Manned by religious leaders and scholars from across the United States and chaired by Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck, the committee was established in November 1996 "to serve the Secretary of State and the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, in an advisory capacity with respect to significant issues of religious freedom, intolerance, and reconciliation abroad as agreed upon by the Committee and the Department of State," according to its charter.
As delineated in the report, the Advisory Committee has "two broad tasks: to call attention to problems of religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom, and religious intolerance abroad and advise on how to end them; and to provide information on how to bring about reconciliation in areas of conflict, especially conflicts where religion is a factor, and promote respect for human rights, so that religious freedom can be fully enjoyed."
In this context, and by way of a general overview, the committee strongly criticized expressions of discrimination instigated or tolerated in European countries, most notably Germany.
"Government actions that discriminate against certain faith communities, even actions taken allegedly to 'protect' society, in fact can seriously threaten members of the faith group and impede their ability to worship," says the report. "Several European countries, including Belgium, France, and Germany, have recently established commissions of inquiry on sects, partly in response to fears of violent cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo from Japan. Unless these commissions focus their work on investigating illegal acts, they run the risk of denying individuals the right to freedom of religion or belief. In Germany, members of the Church of Scientology and of a Christian charismatic church have been subject to intense scrutiny by the Enquete Commission there, and several members have suffered harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence."
The Committee's strong language was all the more embarrassing for Germany given the backdrop against which its discriminatory conduct was raised: the wretched human rights violations of certain Asian and Middle-Eastern nations. "In societies where the government imposes strict political ideology and control over the populace, including on religious matters, many individuals and communities of faith operate 'underground' and risk harassment, detention, and imprisonment."
She concluded her remarks by both praising the committee's work and reaffirming the United States' position on matters of Human Rights: "I consider the promotion of religious freedom to be an integral component of U.S. foreign policy to be pursued not in isolation, but as part of our efforts to increase the respect for human rights around the world."