Lantos Foundation President, Katrina Lantos Swett, participates in a discussion hosted by the Brookings Institute on the vital role that religious pluralism and freedom of religion and conscience play in fostering civility and unity in our democratic republic.
Lantos Foundation Releases Open Letter to President Trump Urging Appointment of Key Envoys to Combat anti-Semitism and Advance International Religious Freedom
Part of Solidarity Sabbath 2017 Initiatives.
Today, the Lantos Foundation released an open letter to President Trump, calling on his administration to act swiftly to appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The letter was co-signed by former Ambassadors-at-Large Robert Seiple and David Saperstein and former Special Envoys Hannah Rosenthal and Ira Forman along with Lantos Foundation President and former Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos Swett.
The letter notes the grave threats facing numerous faith communities around the world from Egypt and Pakistan to Burma and Iran to China and Russia. It underscores the importance of filling these leadership positions promptly in order to maximize American leadership internationally on behalf of persecuted communities and individuals.
The letter reads in part;
“The perilous state of religious freedom around the globe confirms the wisdom of America’s leaders in creating a legal framework for addressing these abuses and ensuring that our foreign policy remains focused on protecting and advancing these fundamental rights. The positions of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism are absolutely critical components of the legal framework.”
The open letter to the Trump administration and related outreach encouraging quick action to fill these posts is being undertaken as part of the Lantos Foundation’s annual Solidarity Sabbath which each May shines a spotlight on embattled faith communities.
Democrat Katrina Lantos Swett is an advocate for human rights regardless of which party she offends
by J.C. Derrick
CONCORD, N.H., and WASHINGTON, D.C.—On a February morning at the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers, ambassadors, and advocates gathered to award the Lantos Human Rights Prize to Vian Dakhil, a young, articulate member of Iraq’s parliament whose 2014 cries for help drew the world’s attention to ISIS atrocities.
Dakhil’s advocacy for fellow Yazidis had made her ISIS’ most wanted woman, but her nationality almost kept her from attending the event in her honor: As an Iraqi national, she was barred from entering the United States under President Donald Trump’s recently issued travel ban.
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, later called it “the height of irony” that the ban would block “one of ISIS’ most effective and ardent foes.” Dakhil eventually received a waiver to attend the event—a process the administration created to address situations like her’s—but Swett urged event attendees to consider what an “America First” policy could mean for human rights.
Some conservative observers might dismiss Swett’s Trump criticism, since she’s a Democrat, but Swett has crafted a reputation as a forceful and fiercely independent advocate for human rights—and specifically international religious freedom. Swett spent the Obama years often urging the administration to be more active and challenging congressional Democrats to do the same.
“There’s no Republican position and there is no Democratic position on international religious freedom,” said Swett, age 61, who served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) from 2012 to 2016. “It absolutely transcends party lines.”
As some Democrats de-emphasize traditional human rights—often in favor of LGBT concerns—and Republicans face pressure not to criticize a GOP White House, Swett’s example of independence shows it is possible to put policy over politics.
“She was the very opposite of a partisan or an ideologue,” said conservative Princeton University professor Robert P. George, who served as the USCIRF chairman in alternating years with Swett. “I did not have a different vision from Katrina, and she didn’t have a different vision from me. We were the same.”
HARROWING FAMILY HISTORY cultivated Swett’s passion for human rights. Her Hungarian parents, Tom and Annette Lantos, both lost most of their families in the Holocaust. After escaping a slave labor camp, her father hid in a safe house established by Raoul Wallenberg, the famed Swedish diplomat who saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Her mother slipped out of Hungary with a “protective passport”—another Wallenberg rescue effort. The couple reconnected after the war, married in 1950, and settled in California.
The Lantoses regularly took their two daughters abroad and, often around the dinner table, instilled a sense of optimism about life and a conviction that one person can make a difference. This produced tangible results: Katrina and her sister Annette took it upon themselves to rebuild the family and had a combined 17 children.
Swett attributes her “double education” at home and school for rapidly preparing her for college. After skipping high school, she earned a political science degree from Yale University at age 18, graduated from law school 2½ years later, and landed on the staff of then-Sen. Joe Biden at age 21.
Four years later, Tom Lantos became the first and only Holocaust survivor to win a seat in Congress. He would go on to help found the Congressional Human Rights Caucus—renamed the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission after his death—and chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Her father was a great man,” said Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan administration official who frequently worked with Lantos on human rights issues.
Step into Swett’s office in downtown Concord, N.H., and it takes only seconds to see how much the legacies of father and daughter intertwine. Atop a bookcase sit separate photos of her father shaking hands with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—near a photo of her smiling parents with Condoleezza Rice. Her mother’s Holocaust-era ID card sits on a shelf. On the wall hangs a painted portrait of her father casting an adoring glance at his wife.
Swett flashed one of her frequent smiles and said she has her father “looking down on me from every corner of my office. He keeps me flying straight.”
Following her father’s 2008 death, Swett, her mother, and her sister launched the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice to continue advancing causes around the globe. The foundation uses three primary means to do so: The Lantos Congressional Fellows program provides mentoring and support for about 10 young human rights activists each year; the Front Line Fund awards grants to small organizations and individuals doing unheralded work; the Lantos Prize for Human Rights annually honors a person for outstanding advocacy—like Vian Dakhil.
“We like to think we punch above our weight,” Swett said before taking me on a tour of her orderly office. She explained her father’s love for animals and the significance of the Wallenberg portrait hanging beside her desk and read a framed letter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent to recognize a Lantos statue unveiled last year in Israel.
The family’s political connections have aided the foundation’s growth, but Swett’s persistent work has swiftly turned the organization into a respected human rights institution.
FOR MANY YEARS Democrats took a strong role in advocating for human rights—both at home and abroad. Among his many international battles, Lantos frequently criticized abuses in China, spoke out against Communism, and steadfastly supported Israel. On the domestic front, Democratic Rep. Chuck Schumer—now the Senate minority leader—introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which President Bill Clinton later signed into law.
The tide turned after 9/11, when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a fear of over-engagement, especially among Democrats. During the Obama presidency, Republicans more often championed traditional human rights, while many Democrats seemed to pull back from them.
Some observers cite a reluctance to criticize one’s own president as the prime cause for the shift, but Swett sees issues that won’t be solved with a Republican in the White House. She said the Iraq War and the rise of LGBT activism have caused some to back away from global human rights issues—especially religious freedom. “Sometimes,” she said, “Democrats hear religious freedom and they transpose it into this domestic context where they may feel that religious freedom claims conflict with what they view as robust protection of civil rights for everybody in our society.”
Swett argues the hesitancy on international issues is unnecessary: Democrats and Republicans can and should agree on, among other things, the danger of blasphemy laws and the economic and security benefits of promoting freedom of speech, religion, and conscience. She said the Obama administration often took the right positions, but then didn’t back them up with policies.
“Rhetoric is always easier than policy,” Swett said. She named Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as consistent advocates, but said, “It pains me that in some instances leaders in my party are not leading the charge any longer on human rights.”
Swett would know. USCIRF’s mandate requires it to collect facts and offer independent policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress on religious freedom issues—putting commissioners in close contact with policymakers.
Swett charted an aggressive course on the issues, calling out oppressive governments and even joining with six other commissioners who each offered to take 100 of the 1,000 lashes the Saudi Arabian government sentenced to a liberal blogger. In 2015, Swett supported USCIRF’s call for the U.S. government to recognize ISIS genocide against all affected groups—in the face of pressure to name only Yazidis.
Her independence at times ran afoul of other Democratic-appointed commissioners who wanted to mitigate criticism of the Obama administration and move USCIRF from nonpartisan to bipartisan—including Republican and Democratic staffs. Swett was at times the lone Democrat voting with four Republicans on the nine-member commission.
“Katrina wouldn’t have it—she just wouldn’t vote a party line,” Abrams said. “She voted her conscience all the time.”
Principled stands don’t come without risk: As a political appointee, Swett could be less likely to receive a future appointment. (Her husband, former U.S. Rep. Richard Swett, was a Clinton-appointed ambassador to Denmark.) But Swett said she didn’t find it difficult: “If I felt it was the right thing to do, it never bothered me to ally with Republican colleagues.”
Some international religious freedom advocates credit Swett with saving the commission. They say the reforms she helped defeat would have rendered the body impotent.
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who served for 27 years with Lantos, wrote the 1998 legislation that created USCIRF and called Swett one of the best commissioners the body has ever had: “She’s a tribute to her dad. I think her father would be very proud.”
An advocate’s religion
Katrina Lantos Swett recalls her father as a proud and patriotic Hungarian before his country turned against him. After watching his mother and close friends die in the Holocaust—at the hands of both Nazis and Hungarian sympathizers—Lantos became a religious agnostic upon his immigration to the United States.
“He had become a hunted animal because he was a young Jewish man,” Swett said. He later rediscovered his Jewish identity but was “not eager to raise his two daughters in any particular religion.”
One day, young Katrina sent chills up her mother’s spine when she wished the family happy new year—in the fall. Her parents explained it wasn’t a new year, but the little girl insisted otherwise. That day was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year no one had ever told Katrina existed.
Mother Annette Lantos eventually joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She read Bible stories to her daughters but showed deference to her husband’s wishes.
As a young adult, Swett also became a Mormon and went on to raise her seven children in both religious traditions. —J.C.D.
Read more : https://world.wng.org/2017/04/her_father_s_daughter
"The protection of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief should be a significant priority of our nation. To permit the rampant abuse of this essential human right not only violates the core of our humanity, it harms the order and well-being of societies, including our own.
In short, protecting religious liberty is not just the right thing to do. It is almost always the smart thing to do."
Concord, NH - The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice announced today the launch of the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath, which focuses on the Chinese government’s harsh repression of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. They are calling on individuals and faith communities around the world to devote the weekend of May 20-22, 2016 to highlight the strength and bravery of Chinese citizens who courageously live out their faith despite threats of harassment, imprisonment, and torture.
“While the Chinese government officially sanctions five religions, it does so with strict Communist Party oversight. Individuals and faith communities who follow their consciences outside the control of the Chinese Communist Party risk imprisonment, torture, or worse,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation. “Without pressure from the global community and the political leadership of free nations, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens will continue to be denied the most fundamental of human rights. Furthermore, religious freedom, tolerance, and respect are vital for the economic and social well-being of nations and their people.”
Individuals are encouraged to visit SolidaritySabbath.org to learn more about the absence of religious freedom in China. There are three ways they can participate: (1) encourage their respective faith communities to focus on the lack of religious freedom in China during the weekend of May 20-22, (2) sign the Solidarity Sabbath petition urging governments to put greater pressure on the Chinese government, and (3) reach out to one of the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath partner organizations to support their work on behalf of people in China. These partners include China Aid, Initiatives for China, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Chen Guangcheng Foundation, All Girls Allowed, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
The Solidarity Sabbath is an annual initiative of the Lantos Foundation that supports the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. During the inaugural Solidarity Sabbath in 2015, leaders across Europe and North America joined together to combat the spread of anti-Semitism. The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice is a non-profit focused on protecting fundamental human rights, promoting the rule of law, encouraging corporate responsibility with respect to human rights, and advancing the legacy and work of the late Congressman Tom Lantos.
Advance the Freedom of Religion, Conscience, and Belief
Religious and spiritual believers in today’s China are being persecuted in ways not seen since Mao's Cultural Revolution 40 years ago. On the weekend of May 20-22, 2016, religious and spiritual communities around the world will join together in the 2016 Solidarity Sabbath to highlight the strength and bravery of Chinese citizens who courageously live out their faith despite threats of harassment, imprisonment, and even torture by the ruling Communist Party.
Freedom of religion, conscience, and belief is a vital human rights issue for all global citizens, and you have a chance to help highlight the plight of the millions of Chinese denied this basic entitlement. Whether it is encouraging your faith community’s leadership to participate in the Solidarity Sabbath or petitioning your government to take part, there are so many ways to make a difference.
Learn more at SolidaritySabbath.org
Paris-Bergen, 17 November 2015 - As U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Southeast Asia this week, ninety (90) international personalities and civil society organizations worldwide have signed a letter urging the President to press for the release of Vietnam's most longstanding prisoner of conscience, Thich Quang Do, leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam and prominent human rights defender.
Initiated by the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (Paris) and the Rafto Foundation (Norway), together with Amnesty International, FIDH, Civil Rights Defenders, World Movement for Democracy, Lantos Foundation, PEN International, People in Need Foundation and Agir Ensemble pour les Droits de l’Homme, the letter’s 90 signatories include Nobel Peace Prize laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Mairead Maguire and Tawakkol Karman, religious figures such as Mons. Vaclav Maly, Bishop of Prague, Fr. José Raúl Vera López, Bishop of Saltillo Mexico, Mgr Bulambo Lembelembe Josué of the DR of Congo, academics, writers, journalists, legislators, 23 members of the European Parliament, Lord Avebury, Baroness Berridge and Lord Alton of the UK House of Lords, numerous Rafto Prize laureates, human rights defenders and democracy activists from all over the globe.
The letter is sent to President Obama as he makes a landmark visit to the Philippines and Malaysia to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summits, where he will meet with Vietnamese leaders. This is a symbolic year for the U.S. and Vietnam, as it marks 20 years of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations and the 40th Anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Human rights are the signatories’ major concern. In Vietnam today, religious leaders, civil society activists and bloggers face daily harassments and intimidation from the authorities simply for peacefully expressing their views, and have no legal framework to protect them, at the same time as the country seeks to strengthen economic and security ties with the U.S, they wrote.
The signatories stress that U.S.-Vietnam relations are only sustainable if they are founded on the mutual respect of democratic freedoms and fundamental human rights including the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief and movement. The release of Thich Quang Do, they said, would be a “truly historic gesture” that would “give Vietnam the opportunity to demonstrate its willingness for progress, and reaffirm the United States’ determination to make human rights the cornerstone of this strengthened relationship.”
Thich Quang Do, 87, is Fifth Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), a renowned spiritual leader, scholar, dissident and 16-times Nobel Peace Prize nominee. He has spent more than three decades in detention for his peaceful advocacy of religious freedom, democracy and human rights. For protesting the creation of a State-sponsored Buddhist Church, in 1982, Thich Quang Do was sent into internal exile in northern Vietnam for ten years along with his mother, who died of cold and hunger in the harsh environment. In 1995, he was sentenced to five years in prison for organising a rescue mission for flood victims in the Mekong Delta.
Released in 1998 due to international pressure, Thich Quang Do was placed under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). His communications are monitored and he is denied freedom of movement and citizenship rights. From house arrest, Thich Quang Do continues to press Vietnam to embrace democratic pluralism and respect all human rights for all.
For more information:
The Lantos foundation is non-profit non-partisan organization and as such does not take positions on political candidates. However, as a human rights organization that seeks to advance the robust protection of freedom of religion, conscience, and belief, we feel it is important for us to speak out on the recent discussion of whether or not a Muslim American should hold the office of President of the United States.
In many ways religious freedom is the well spring from which many of our other cherished human rights flow. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association –all of these hinge upon a rights frame work that honors and upholds the fundamental right of freedom of religion. The framers of our constitution understood the importance of protecting the right of all citizens of whatever faith or belief to participate fully and equally in the life of our society. Not only is this belief enshrined in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights, but equally importantly it is spelled out in Article V Paragraph 3 of the Constitution. There it states with utter clarity that, “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
At the time of America’s founding, such forward thinking and visionary ideas about religious freedom and equality were rare. The subsequent centuries have borne out the wisdom of our founders in establishing a Republic where the separation of church and state, the full and free exercise of religion, and the equality of all before the law is robustly defended. In many ways this historically unique American formulation has been the key to our remarkable success as a society, and we have seen it emulated in constitutional charters and human rights documents around the globe. Furthermore, we can see the disastrous consequences in the form of religious repression and persecution, brutal sectarian violence, and instability in societies that fail to provide strong protection for this fundamental human right.
That is why it was so distressing to hear comments suggesting that a faithful Muslim would not be welcome to serve as President of the United States. Not only do these comments reflect a profound misunderstanding of the US Constitution and our national traditions, but they represent an egregious slander against the Muslim faith and against millions of patriotic Muslim American citizens. This is unacceptable.
We encourage all those who would seek the highest office in the land to live by and defend our first freedom –the freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. Furthermore, we would hope that in their communications and indeed in their conduct that they would seek to reflect our nation’s most honored values of liberty, justice and equality for all.