STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: State reports on religious freedom

Cheryl Wetzstein
Iranian police tortured a Christian couple in East Tehran for holding Bible studies and attending a house church.

The secret police spirited away Makan Arya, 31, and his wife, Tina Rad, 28, on June 3, leaving their daughter, Odzhan, 4, unattended. They were held incommunicado for four days, released on $50,000 bail and told if they returned to their church or had contact with Christians in any way, they would lose custody of their daughter and “be punished by the law of Islam.”

The punishment is death for people who convert from Islam to Christianity, which this couple had done three months before. Above the story in Word magazine was a photo of a normal-looking couple; he a pudgy guy wearing wire-rimmed glasses and she with her hair pulled back in a chignon, holding a little girl wearing a white sweater.

Log onto www.compass and you see a photo of the wife post-torture, looking sick and stunned with an enormous bruise on her face. The couple’s family has demanded they revert to Islam and neighbors constantly vandalize them.

It was for people like these that the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) — one of the brightest lights of the Clinton administration — was passed by Congress in 1998. The act set up a religious freedom office in the U.S. State Department headed by an ambassador at large, mandated a yearly report on international religious freedom, spotlighted the world’s worst violators of religious freedom (Iran is always on this list), and set up the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to think through how U.S. foreign policy can advance religious freedom.

No other country makes religious freedom an intentional part of its international dealings. The most recent issue of Faith & International Affairs, a quarterly issued by the Arlington-based Council on Faith & International Affairs, is devoted to grading the effectiveness of the IRFA and the USCIRF. Interesting tidbits include an essay by Robert Seiple, the first ambassador at large, on the secret negotiations that led to the lessening of religious oppression in Laos.

Sanctions don’t work with countries such as Burma, Iran, China and the Sudan, he said, but what does help is behind-the-scenes talks with such countries on why religious freedom is in their best national interest. Coaxed by private get-togethers featuring boating, fishing and golf games at Mr. Seiple’s Eastern Shore home, the Laotians began releasing incarcerated Christians.

Other essays pinpoint the State Department’s resistance to the IRFA (without explaining why, unfortunately), explained the political machinations that got the IRFA through Congress and listed a few victories, not the least of which is the State Department’s annual report, read avidly around the world.

A lot of work needs to be done. For instance, the USCIRF’s spotlighting of religious persecution carries little weight with many American diplomats and its recommendations are not binding. The persecution of religious dissidents, such as the frequently jailed Muslim bloggers in Egypt, hasn’t affected the billions this country contributes in foreign aid. Protection for Iraq’s beleaguered Christians has been left out of U.S. reconstruction efforts.

Julia Duin

Until the State Department takes bolder stands, folks such as the hapless Arya family remain without hope.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at