During my travels on behalf of the Department of State, people sometimes ask, “Why does the Department of State expend so much effort to chronicle the status of religious freedom around the world?” Because religious freedom matters. In a world where 84 percent of the population claim a religion, it matters that people be free to make personal choices regarding their faith: to believe or not to believe, as well as to change one’s religion without fear. Religious freedom matters not only because it is a universal human right, but also because it is essential for peaceful and thriving societies.
The Annual International Religious Freedom Country Reports chronicle the status of religious freedom in 199 countries and territories around the world. The reports also serve as advocacy tools to promote religious freedom.
Like many other nations, we in the United States struggle with religious intolerance. What helps us are our laws protecting religious freedom, a robust civil society, an unfettered media that reports when violations occur, and an independent judicial system to ensure redress through peaceful means. Without these tools, it is very difficult to make religious freedom a reality.
People take great risks to practice their faith in many countries. Religious groups struggle to find places to worship. Religious leaders have told me firsthand of the governmental discrimination and societal intolerance their members face.
But this is not the whole story. In my travels abroad, I see people taking positive action. In East Asia, I saw religious groups helping members of their community, whether or not they shared a faith. This is a clear demonstration of how people of faith can become agents of positive change. Good work is done when people of different faiths respect each other’s rights dignity and work together on common goals, such as when the women in Liberia joined together to demand an end to war and the women of Cote d’Ivoire marched and died for peace. And now, representatives from different nations and international organizations are opening their own offices to promote religious freedom. For example, Canada just appointed its first Ambassador for Religious Freedom to promote religious freedom around the world. Efforts like these — from both civil society and government — are rewriting the narrative of hate and intolerance into one of acceptance and peace.
The challenges are daunting, but change is possible.
About the Author: Suzan Johnson Cook serves as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.