Religious freedom, human rights discussed

Dr. Katrina Swett speaks on the importance of international  freedom of religion and thought on Oct. 7. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Kris Mason
Staff Writer

Katrina Swett, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) spoke on Tuesday, Oct. 7 at the VCU Commons Theater about her mission to promote religious freedom throughout the world and to have more countries acknowledge it as a fundamental human right.

In her hour-long talk she covered the state of religious freedom country-by-country. The talk covered a wide variety of issues from well-publicized conflicts such as the ISIS situation in Iraq to lesser known ones such as Buddhists in Burma killing Muslims.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS, has seized wide sections of both countries and have repeatedly attacked non-Muslim minorities while also attacking Sunni and Shiite Muslims who dissent against their interpretation of Islam.

This past summer there was violent clashes in Myanmar when Buddhists, the primary faith in Burma, attacked the minority group Muslims. This goes against the commonly held notion that Buddhists are peaceful and Muslims are dangerous and threatening. Swett feels that this is an important reminder to set aside assumptions when evaluating religious situations in countries.

She also went on to describe the tumultuous situations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, among other places.

Despite all the chaos in the world, she feels as if the United States could be doing more to eradicate this problem.

“We are not exercising our leverage and we’re beginning to lose that leverage. This is a matter of principle and conviction,” Swett said. “This is something that is ultimately deeply beneficial for their own society, but they have to be encouraged to face the reality that you cannot build a mature modern society without securing the fundamental freedom.”

USCIRF is designed to keep tabs on the state of religious freedom abroad and make recommendations to the president, Secretary of State and Congress, according to the USCIRF website. USCIRF also isolates specific countries who are violators of religious freedoms and designate them as “countries of particular concern” or CPCs.

This past summer USCIRF recommended that Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan all be added to the CPC list. Swett described the size of the list as relatively stable and said she hopes to see a great decline in the future.

Many of these conflicts directly threaten the national security of the U.S. Swett feels that the best way to ease the tension between groups is to allow people to express themselves through any religion.

“The heart of the problem cannot be solved without aggressive religious freedom reform,” she said.

Swett said that she felt it was important for students to grasp how fortunate they are to live in a country with such robust religious freedom while at the same time realize that many international  security and stability issues stem from the lack of religious freedom.

Students felt that she relayed that message well, but the overall reaction to the talk was mixed.

“I thought it was very insightful and I’m glad I came over,” VCU student Pedro Quintero said. “I came for extra credit and got more out of it than what I expected.”

However, not all students were impressed. VCU religious studies student Laura Bryant had a much different reaction.

“I thought it was very interesting,” Bryant said. “However, she touched base on a lot of things that are important as a student of religion and then completely left them open which confused me and left me wanting more information we didn’t have time to get to.”

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