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Robert George, U.S. religious freedom panel chairman, worried about rights globally
Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, has been named to his second term as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
In 30 years of teaching at Princeton University, Robert P. George Robbie to his friends has resolutely forged a reputation for articulating philosophical truths defending faith, family and freedom.

Today, he holds the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence at Princeton, an endowed professorship once held by Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. He also is director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

George has spoken as forcefully on behalf of religious liberty around the world as he has on moral issues at home. In June, he was elected to a second, non-consecutive, term as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, of which he has been a member since 2012.

The nine-member panel, whose members are appointed by the president and Congress, is charged with advising the president and the secretary of state on issues of religious freedom around the world, suggesting nations that should be designated as "Countries of Particular Concern," or CPCs.

Such designations may trigger various American actions, but also serve as a caution to those countries that someone else is watching how a country observes the need for freedom of conscience for its citizens. (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, guarantees the right of people to observe the religion of their choice, to change their religious beliefs, as well as express those beliefs.)

George spoke by phone with us about the role of the commission and his current view of the world's religious liberty picture. To George, the glass isn't half full, rather it's "three-quarters empty," although he adds there are signs of hope.

Some questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why is it important for the United States to have a commission on religious freedom?

Robert P. George: The United States is a nation founded on certain commitments and principles. Among those is the belief in religious freedom, not simply as an American principle but as a universal principle. The commission exists in part to advance the universal ideals that we as Americans are committed to, not just within our own borders, but for all men. (We should use) the leverage we do have with our allies and trading partners, and others for the cause of assisting people whose religious liberty is being compromised or violated.

Congress believes that advancing religious liberty serves our long-term international security. Nations that are respectful to religious liberty tend to be less violent, more stable, less prone to other human rights abuses.

Congress wanted to ensure is that there was a lobby for religious freedom concerns for people around the globe. Close to 75 percent of the world's population according to the Pew Foundation's work, which is the most reliable work I know, are living under regimes that either themselves violate the religious freedom of their people, or stand by and do nothing as thugs and mobs violate the religious freedom of people they victimize.

Question: What is in your view today a snapshot of the world religious freedom picture?

RPG: The situation is very bleak. That should not cause us to despair, but on the contrary, cause us to renew our commitments and redouble our efforts on behalf of religious freedom around the globe.

In the Middle East for example, the situation is tragic. In the historic cradle of Christianity you find nations being emptied of their Christian populations, those people turning into refugees and so forth. There are also Muslim groups like the Rohingya in Myanmar, like the Uighurs in China, like the Ahmadiyya Muslims in some places of the Middle East who are being persecuted. You find the Bahai's being persecuted in Iran and elsewhere; the Zaidis being persecuted. You look in the Far East, in the tragic situation in North Korea for people of all faiths. China is still a world class religious freedom abuser. Vietnam is another nation we are recommending for a designation of CPC status because Buddhists and Christians and others are persecuted by the regime there. So, it is not good; it has not gotten better in recent years, it has gotten worse in recent years.

Question: What can the average person do to promote religious liberty?

RPG: The U.S. is a democracy, and politicians will respond to what they believe the people are interested in and what they want. So, the people have power to influence public policy, and people need to use that power. How do they use it? First, they have got to inform themselves, and one easy way (and it's not the only way) is to go to the website,, and look at our report. Study the areas you are interested in. If you are interested in the Middle East, or Asia, or one of the countries, go there and learn everything you can. Then, be in touch with your political leaders your members of Congress and your senators to say that you care about domestic and international religious freedom and this is a voting issue for me. Write a letter to the editor, add your comments on blogs.

The way a movement grows is by all sorts of people in different areas doing a little bit that they can, using the influence that they have, even if they are regarded as small, to call the attention of their fellow citizens and leaders to problems that need to be addressed. Many, many Americans belong to religious congregations churches, synagogues, mosques, and so forth. Be in touch with your clergy. What is being done to call the congregation's attention to suffering abroad, or about religious violations abroad? If nothing is being done, do it. Volunteer to get a series of speakers who can speak with authority about religious liberty issues at home and abroad, work with your pastor your pastor might benefit by learning from you or getting your advice about how to learn more about religious freedom, and maybe some of that will be integrated into some of his sermons. So, there is an enormous amount that can be done by ordinary citizens to move the ball forward.

Question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Are you an optimist on this issue, in terms of what you see in the world today?

RPG: Well, I see it as three-quarters empty. And we can't close our eyes or pretend it's otherwise. I mean, if we are going to do anything about it, we have to take the measure of the problem and face up to it. So, I'm not going to say things are not so bad; things are very bad. Now, am I hopeful? Absolutely, I am hopeful. I believe we can turn the situation around.

Fundamentally, we need to change the trajectory so that things are getting better rather than worse. Right now, they are probably getting worse rather than better. Once we change that trajectory, and we are diligent and willing to stay the course, and refuse to allow the bad situation to demoralize us, we will advance the cause of religious freedom.

Question: What about those who choose not to believe? In Bangladesh you've had two or three bloggers who were killed in the streets because they said they were atheists.

RPG: Yes, that's right, and that's a horrific crime and we at the commission are concerned about that. We regard the right to religious freedom as not only the right to believe, but the right to not believe, the right not to be forced to act as though one believes, if one, in fact, doesn't believe or talk as one believes, if one doesn't believe. Religious freedom is a very important substantiation of a more general right that we might call the right to conscience.
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