For Immediate Release: January 7, 2011
Washington, DC – Today in a letter to President Barack Obama, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino urged him to address recent violence sparked by religious hatred during his upcoming State of the Union address. Massimino called on President Obama to make clear America’s commitments to protecting religious freedom and combating religious violence.
“Your leadership on this issue is urgently needed. The assassination of Pakistan’s Governor Salman Taseer this week focused the world’s attention on the gravity of religious extremism and the dangers associated with speaking out against it,” wrote Massimino. “Despite intense pressure from religious extremists to be silent, and aware of the risk that speaking out on this issue posed to his own life, Governor Taseer courageously stood up for the rights of religious minorities. The assassin, one of his own police guards, is being hailed as a hero by those who label as blasphemous Governor Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s abusive blasphemy laws.”
Massimino noted the Obama Administration’s continued leadership in efforts to defeat a United Nations resolution supporting a global blasphemy law similar to the existing Pakistani law challenged by Governor Taseer. She noted that such laws damage rather than advance efforts to combat religious intolerance and promote an atmosphere of fear, intolerance and violence. For example, in its recent report Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions”, Human Rights First detailed more than 50 recent cases from 15 countries that provide a window into how national blasphemy laws are abused by governments.
“The United States must do more to stem this tide. We urge you to use your State of the Union address to announce a campaign that would marshal efforts across the government to extinguish the fires of extremism. Such an effort would send a message of support to those standing up for religious freedom around the world and address a key problem at the root of our anti-terrorism efforts,” Massimino wrote.
The letter stated that the Obama Administration already has the power through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to work with foreign governments to end severe violations of religious freedom. If cooperation is not forthcoming, the Act gives the administration authority to impose sanctions like restrictions on aid, transactions and travel. In addition, Massimino stated that U.S. diplomats should not only condemn and report on acts of violence but also work with governments to ensure that cases of violence are investigated and prosecuted.
Human Rights First is also urging President Obama to affirm in his State of the Union address that religious bigotry has no place in the United States and to exhort Americans – especially political leaders – not to manipulate domestic security concerns in a way that incites hatred and ultimately undermines social cohesion to the detriment of security efforts. The group asked that the President remind foreign leaders that they too have obligations to speak out strongly against religious violence and act to end it. This includes ending official support and funding for extremist groups as well as incitement to violence and discrimination in public education and government controlled media. In addition, the group said the United States Government should work with other governments to encourage local efforts to provide protection and security, especially at predictable times of heightened tension or threat of violence, such as this past Christmas season’s horrific attacks on Christians in Egypt and Iraq.
“Whenever they occur, violence targeting individuals of all faiths must be swiftly and forcefully condemned. … Seventy years ago, at a time of great national peril, FDR’s message was unequivocal: ‘Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.’ Then as now, the peace and security of the United States and the vindication of rights are inextricably bound,” Massimino concluded
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