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Houston • Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that religious communities can play a role in achieving foreign policy goals around the world.
Invoking religion in an unusually direct manner, Kerry said understanding the importance of faith is essential in diplomacy and working with religious leaders can help solve complex problems in foreign countries.
"The more we understand religion and the better able we are as a result to engage religious actors, the more effective our diplomacy will be in advancing the interests and values of our people," Kerry said in a speech Tuesday night at Rice University.
Kerry did not signal any shift in U.S. foreign policy. A Catholic, Kerry noted that the separation of church and state means the U.S. government does not favor one religion over another, or even religion itself.
"But this doesn't mean that religion is irrelevant to our approach to world affairs," he said, "particularly in this globalized, different world we're living in today."
Kerry outlined a religious aspect to some of the themes he has drawn upon many times before: Suppressing fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom, feeds anger that can make people susceptible to recruiting by terrorists, he said. Climate change is an environmental concern to religious communities that see a connection between God and stewardship of the Earth. Jobs must be created for masses of young people in developing countries, part of a religious mandate to help the poor and marginalized.
"We also have a deeply rooted interest in doing so," he said, "because nothing could be more dangerous for our future than the prospect of huge numbers of young wandering the globe, frustrated in their ambitions, and acutely aware, 'cause they all got smartphones, most of them, they get to see what others have, and they do not."
Kerry also took a swipe at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, without mentioning his name. Citing rising anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe, he added, "There are troubling indications here in the United States, where some have urged a ban on Muslim visitors and where false stories about large numbers of Muslim-Americans supposedly celebrating the 9/11 attacks have been willfully disseminated by people who don't bother to check their facts."
Calling Muslims "part of the social fabric that defines and binds our country together," Kerry added, "Efforts to smear them collectively for the actions of a few are despicable and no more logical than it would have been in the 1990s to hold all Christians accountable for the atrocities committed against Muslim populations in Bosnia and Kosovo."
In his three years as secretary of state, Kerry has tried to institutionalize a diplomatic focus on religion and its influence in crises across the globe. Early in his tenure, in 2013, he established an Office of Religion and Global Affairs, whose staff of 30 includes an envoy on anti-Semitism and a representative to Muslim communities.
It was an effort to systematically analyze religion much as economics and politics are routinely scrutinized, not just when it was creating problems. The office has worked with religious leaders and groups to tackle issues of common interest.
Last year, the office held a workshop for Christian and Muslim leaders in Nigeria to discuss strategies for fighting a culture of corruption in the country. It is engaging with religious leaders on resettling refugees in Europe, ending female genital mutilation in the Gambia and standing up for minority rights in France and Belgium.
Those contacts proved useful when the Islamic State group began seizing territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014, when the militants were advancing on the Yazidis in northern Iraq, murdering, raping and enslaving them. Even as Yazidis sped up Mount Sinjar, he said, they and their intermediaries contacted the State Department to pinpoint where food could be dropped to civilians and direct airstrikes against militants.
Kerry said the protection of religious and ethnic minorities is a "fundamental test, not just of our leadership, but of civilization itself," and noted that he had determined the Islamic State group is committing genocide over religious minorities, including Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis.
"It is up to us to recognize that we can't lead a world that we don't understand," Kerry said, "and that we can't understand the world if we fail to comprehend and honor the central role that religion plays in the lives of billions of people."
Kerry spoke before Rice University faculty, students and supporters of the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy. He met privately with President George H.W. Bush and Baker, Bush's secretary of state.
Kerry pointed out two guests in the audience, Debra and Mark Tice, whose son, Austin, is a journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012 and is believed a captive in the Middle East.
"We are inspired by your courage and by your love for your son," Kerry told them. "And I personally continue to do absolutely everything I can to see that Austin returns home safely and soon."