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New State Department Religion Office Provokes Concerns

New State Department Religion Office Provokes Concerns
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After getting a scholarship to attend a women’s leadership conference in the United States, Dewirini Anggraeni decided to create an interfaith youth council in Jakarta. The veiled Indonesian says she used to hate America because of its foreign policy, but what she experienced in New York changed her mind.

“I saw so many women using the hijab and they can also walk freely and pray, and even so many mosques I saw,” she said, “and I feel like they really appreciate and respect each other among [different faiths].”

The State Department hopes to reach more people like Anggraeni with the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, launched earlier this month by Secretary of State John Kerry.

The office, which will coordinate diplomacy with religious groups, is a response to criticism that U.S. foreign policy in the past has failed to take account of the religiosity of foreign people.

Partners in diplomacy

Kerry appointed Christian ethics professor Shaun Casey to head the office. A few days after his appointment, in an interview in his sparsely furnished office at the State Department, he said he would work with both domestic and foreign faith groups that can help prevent or resolve conflict abroad.

“We need to partner with those kinds of groups, know what they do, know what their impact is,” he said. “We ignore them, really, at our peril.”

The office was lobbied for mostly by U.S. faith-based groups doing aid and development work and campaigning for religious freedom overseas.

Chris Seiple of the evangelical Christian Institute for Global Engagement teaches diplomats in training at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, to acknowledge religious sensitivities.

He said the State Department had traditionally been a “bastion of secular fundamentalism,” and that’s still the view of some diplomats.

“They don’t want to talk about religion because they say - or some would feel, or the culture would suggest - that religion and state should never be talked about at a cocktail party, at an embassy, ever,” said Seiple.

Learning from the past

Proponents and critics of the new office agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were complicated by a U.S. failure to understand local religious traditions and that a greater appreciation of religion is needed by those making foreign policy.

But the involvement of faith groups in the making of American foreign policy worries George Washington University professor Melani McAlister.

“You end up with certain organizations having more influence on foreign policy,” she said, “precisely because they say, ‘We need to talk to religious organizations and who better than us to help you figure out how to do that.’”

She said to engage one religious group or another would inevitably be political. And the State Department’s terrorist classification of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah was an example of how some factions will be off limits, she said.

“And so there are a lot of ways in which religion is being adjudicated as much as it’s being engaged,” said McAlister.

Casey, the office’s new director, does not talk about who he will approach, but he said there's no list of excluded groups.

“We’re going to talk to anybody who’s willing to talk to us. We’re not going to turn folks away because somehow they’re on a nonexistent hypothetical list," said Casey.