“Countries of Particular Concern”↑

Freedom of religion by country (Pew Research C...
Freedom of Religion by Country (PEW 2009)

This past week the State Department of the USA released this year’s list of the most serious offenders of religious freedom around the world. The 8 countries included on the list are the same as those who were named last year: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. This is a serious matter. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at a press briefing described the issue for reporters.

“It is our core conviction that religious tolerance is one of the essential elements not only of a sustainable democracy but of a peaceful society that respects the rights and dignity of each individual.”

Yes, this is a step of action to move towards religious freedom. But what has it accomplished really? Putting together a list like this just tells those leaders “We don’t like what you are doing.” How do we expect them to respond? We walk in – or actually probably just send them a letter – you aren’t giving your people freedom. I’m sure they go “oh, really?? We didn’t know! Thanks for telling us. We will change that now.” All this really does is farther isolate the leaders of these countries.

Is there a better option? 

I’ve recently been impressed with the philosophy of one group that rather than publishing a list and waiting for change has taken an approach of engagement. They are working with some of these governments that are on the State Department’s list, yet rather than isolating them they are building relationships with them. This approach is termed “relational diplomacy” and it goes both top-down and bottom-up.

Though certainly not without challenges and difficulties. This approach offers a great amount of promise. When someone knows that you are interested in them – and their people – and want to know the causes of the conflict they will be more likely to respond positively in efforts to increase freedom for religion in their country.

Rather than write a list and tell them to change perhaps we should engage them as people and work with them to grow their society.

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