One of my greatest privileges is praying with my children. Each has his or her own spiritual style. Our 9-month-old baby girl takes the "make a joyful noise” approach, enthusiastically clapping, cooing and screeching in her attempts to sing along with the hymns at church and at home, with a zeal that is not always appreciated by other congregants or family members.
Our 2-year-old is also a fervent cantor (with more accurate pitch), but he also prefers kinetic prayer. No matter how distant or awkward the angle from his high chair to the next person at the table, he is intent on holding hands and making (sometimes confused) signs of the cross at meal times.
And our five-year-old is a dedicated practitioner of petitionary and thanksgiving prayer. Her lists of thanks (including each teacher and student in her preschool) and petitions are legendary and have been known to cool many a meal and delay many a bedtime. I learn much from my children as I observe their varied spiritual selves. And I am humbled in my attempts to explain what is inexplicable to them: how governments and rebels can block worship and prayer.
Our five-year-old saw newspaper pictures of the recent spate of mosque bombings in Iraq, and the questions began. Why is that woman crying? Why would anyone hurt a church? Where in the world are people not allowed to pray? I attempted a few brief, age-appropriate explanations, to which she responded, "This is unacceptable. People don't get it. No one can stop people from talking to God.”
This year the State Department will issue its 10th annual report on international religious freedom, detailing restrictions on religious liberty from China, Burma and Sudan to Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics of this yearly ritual argue the report is toothless. The Chinese government, for example, has been listed as one of the worst offenders, a "country of particular concern” in every report, yet this does not stop the United States from engaging in extensive trade and financial relations with China. The May 1 report of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom cites countries of concern that the State Department omits for political reasons, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq.
Defenders note that religious freedom benefits from transparency and attention to abuses, both of which the report offers. It is one tool among others to help advance the principles that religious liberty is "a foundational human right, that restrictions on faith and practice are an affront to human dignity.”
While the United States leads in promoting international religious liberty abroad, in some ways we still "don't get it.” U.S. officials in diplomacy, development and defense are not trained in the religious dimensions of international affairs academic international relations programs marginalize the study of religion, and U.S. government recruitment efforts do not reach out to religious studies programs. The Center for Strategic and International Studies report Mixed Blessings describes in detail the many ways in which the U.S. government does not engage or understand religious actors and dynamics. The Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have vowed to hire more and better trained civilians to deploy into hotspots around the world, like Afghanistan and Iraq. But without a nuanced understanding of religious actors and dynamics, U.S. policies in those countries and elsewhere will be ineffective and self-defeating. Obama has yet to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau"doesn't get it,” as it has failed to provide access to religious services and professional chaplains for refugees in U.S. detention, particularly at local, state and contractor facilities. Refugees held in U.S. detention centers have less access to religious services than jailed U.S. prisoners. Few Iraqi refugees are allowed into the United States, even though half of the Iraqi Christian population has been either killed or forced to flee, according to the U.S.C.I.R.F. report.
Congress must protect refugees’ religious freedom and practices, because the I.C.E. has been unresponsive to these concerns.
When our family goes to church, we fear that our three young children may disrupt the Mass. We do not fear we will be prevented from worshipping, nor do we fear for our lives. As Congress and the administration change U.S. foreign policy and institutions,"getting religion” would be a good place to start.