About the Author: Alexander McLaren is a Foreign Service Officer in the Office of International Religious Freedom.The United States observes January 16 as Religious Freedom Day; it is the anniversary of the first American law protecting religious freedom. In recognition of this day, we present a series of entries on how the Department of State works to advance this universal right around the world.
I'm sipping tea in a beautiful mosque in downtown Seoul with several Korean Imams as they explain to me that although Islam only came to Korea in the 1950s it has attracted tens of thousands of Korean converts and also has hundreds of thousands of adherents among foreigners living in Korea. I hear how Muslims enjoy religious freedom in the Republic of Korea (the ROK or, more commonly, South Korea) and how their faith has flourished. It's nice to end the day with some good news and, more importantly, ward off jetlag with the ever-flowing cups.
I'm a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Our office was created to advocate for religious freedom and each year the State Department publishes the International Religious Freedom (IRF) report covering nearly 200 countries and territories around the world. In many countries, particularly those that are not democracies, the news is bad. But we also work with fellow democracies in strengthening this universal right.
I visited the ROK, one of the world's healthiest democracies and an important ally of the United States. The ROK fully respects religious freedom, in contrast with its neighbor, North Korea. In Seoul I met with Jehovah's Witness and conscientious objector groups to discuss their legal difficulties resulting from their religious beliefs about pacificism. Read more about conscientious objectors in the Republic of Korea, in the 2010 IRF report for the ROK. Meetings like this remind me that religious freedom is never something anyone can take for granted, even in democracies.
I heard a lot of good news on this trip, too. Muslim groups in Seoul and Tokyo speak about the freedom they enjoy. Christian and Buddhist groups cooperate to spread mutual understanding. It is a profound pleasure to meet with the dedicated people who work every day to solve these issues.
Over the last year my colleagues have traveled to Indonesia, China, Tunisia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. They have even braved the New York City subway system to meet with government officials, religious leaders and NGOs to promote the cause of religious freedom. It's never easy work, but it is challenging and richly rewarding to fight for a fundamental right under threat in many parts of the world, and to work with our allies and friends to strengthen respect for religious freedom.