Encounter in the Public Square

Encounter in the Public SquareLeaders in the public square— the military, legislatures, and governmental departments—have responded to the increasing religious diversity in the United States by appointing chaplains, inviting invocations, and recognizing holidays in religions outside of Christianity and Judaism. Often, this increased engagement leads to visible changes. For instance, military tombstones may now be bear symbols indicating one of dozens of religious traditions (or the lack thereof), from a Christian cross to a Wiccan pentacle.

What is the “public square” in America? In broad terms, it is where Americans encounter one another and exchange ideas about matters of importance to the town, the city or the nation. In some American towns, there are still town meetings open to all. There are also school committees, PTA meetings, and civic association meetings where citizens meet face to face. Rapid advancements in communication technologies mean that issues of public importance are now discussed online—through websites, blogs, and social media venues like Facebook and Twitter—in addition to television and radio. Each of these methods of communication has impacted the most visible public square: the political arena. It is here that dramas of national identity are discussed and enacted, from state legislatures to the United States Congress, from city councils of small town America all the way to the White House. So where in the public square is there evidence of this new religious diversity and citizen engagement, these attempts to build a culture of pluralism in America?

Intentional attempts to enact social change and legal necessity are two factors that motivate pluralistic efforts in the public sphere. Political leaders connect with diverse religious groups at holiday celebrations and in the halls of legislatures, hoping to change how the American government interacts with its public to more accurately reflect the nation’s religious landscape. In other public spaces, including prisons and the military, where religious diversity already exists, religious infrastructure is changing to meet the religious needs and constitutional rights of the people inside. 

 On February 20, 1996, at the end of the month of Ramadan, then First Lady Hillary Clinton welcomed Muslims to the White House for the first celebration of Eid ever to take place there. In her greeting, she told those who had gathered: “This celebration is an American event. We are a nation of immigrants who have long drawn on our diverse religious traditions and faiths for the strength and courage that make America great. For two centuries, we have prided ourselves on being a nation of pluralistic beliefs, united by a common faith in democracy.”

One of the Muslims who spoke on this occasion was an eleven-year-old Girl Scout, Marwa al-Kairo, from Herndon, Virginia. In her green felt hat and uniform, Marwa addressed the crowd: “Only in America people from different parts of the world can come together and become one community. I am proud to be an American Muslim.” Three years before, in 1993, the Girl Scouts had widened the religious language of its pledge, allowing scouts like Marwa to affirm, “On my honor I will try to serve Allah and my country…” This inclusivity—a move that stirred controversy within national Girl Scout circles—was also extended to Buddhist and secular scouts, among others.

When a U.S. president is inaugurated, prayers are often offered during the ceremony and language used by many Inauguration Day speakers is often infused with religious overtones. President Barack Obama made history during his 2009 inaugural address when he spoke of America as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” While prayers have been offered by Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish clergy at past presidential inaugurations, there has not been a constitutional challenge to the prayers offered at this symbolic moment. Yet many ask: How should such a symbolic moment be configured in a new multireligious America? Are these considered to be prayers for the president, offered by someone from his or her religious tradition? Or are they prayers for the nation, offered by different religious leaders? Now that there are nearly as many Muslims as Jews, when will an imam offer prayers at the inauguration of a U.S. president? What about the fact that a growing number of Americans do not associate with a particular religious tradition?

Legislative prayers have been a bellwether of change in the public square. On June 25, 1991, for the first time in American history, a Muslim imam, Siraj Wahhaj of Brooklyn, opened a session of the U.S. House of Representatives with the customary invocation, offered by a member of the clergy each day before the opening of the session. In his prayer, he quoted one of the most oft-cited verses of the Qur’an: “Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other.” Newspapers throughout the country took note of this historic moment; an article in the American Muslim Council Report provided the text of the prayer. On February 6, 1992, Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the large majority of African American Muslims, was invited to give the first-ever Islamic invocation in the U.S. Senate. State legislatures across the country have also begun to reflect a broader understanding of America’s religious diversity. Since 1992, state legislatures of Tennessee and California have both been opened by Muslim and Buddhist invocations. In 2007, Hindu and interfaith activist Rajan Zed opened Nevada’s state legislature with a Hindu invocation. Protesters were also on hand for Zed’s prayer, shouting Christian scriptural verses before being escorted off the premises.

In 2006, Keith Ellison (D-MN) was elected to the House of Representatives, the first Muslim to serve in Congress; he was sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Qu’ran. The first Muslim woman to become a mayor in the United States was sworn in thirteen years after Ellison joined the House: Sadaf Jaffer assumed office on January 3, 2019, in Montegomery Township, New Jersey. In 2008, Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Hank Johnson (D-GA) became the first Buddhists elected to Congress, both to the House of Representatives; Hirono went on to become the first Buddhist in the Senate with her election in 2012. Also in 2012, Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) became the first Hindu to be elected to the United States Congress. Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran and the youngest person to be elected to the Hawai’i State Legislature, took the congressional oath of office on her personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita. “My Gita,” she told the media, “has been a tremendous source of inner peace and strength through many tough challenges in life, including being in the midst of death and turmoil while serving our country in the Middle East.” Although Bibles still remain the most common book upon which elected officials—including the president and vice president—take their oath of office, the appearance of the Bhagavad Gitas and the Qur’an on Capitol Hill reflect the increasingly diverse religious commitments of the American public.

There are many other symbolic indicators of a new awareness of religious pluralism in the public square. In April of 1990, for example, the city council of Savannah, Georgia issued a proclamation recognizing Islam to have been “a vital part of the development of the United States of America and the city of Savannah.” In 1991, San Francisco recognized the annual festival honoring the Hindu deity Ganesha. An article in India Abroad on September 6, 1991, read: “Mayor Art Agnos has issued a proclamation declaring September 22 ‘Golden Gate Ganesha Visarjana Day.’ It is believed to be the first time that the mayor of a city in the United States has honored the Hindu deity.” Also, the festivals of America’s many religious traditions are visible markers of a new pluralism in the public square. In recent decades, the Sikh Baisakhi Day and India Day parades have made their mark in New York City alongside older institutions like Chinese New Year. In 2012, an Eid al-Fitr festival was hosted at the Salt Lake City Public Library and in Irvington, New Jersey the two Islamic feast days—Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha—are among the holidays when municipal parking restrictions are waived. In 2006, a Christian pastor in El Sobrante, California decided to distribute flyers promoting Christianity during a Peace Parade sponsored by the local Sikh community. His actions sparked both controversy and conversation with the Sikh community, demonstrating that these visible markers of a new pluralism often do not emerge without contestation.

Organizing to have a voice in the public square has become important to many American religious communities. The Christian Coalition, the National Council of Churches, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are all dedicated to bringing a Christian religious voice to bear on the public debate. Similarly, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League are among dozens of Jewish organizations to participate. The Guru Gobind Singh Foundation, a Sikh organization, in Washington, D.C. was active with many other religious groups in securing the passing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the early 1990s. Today, the Sikh Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and Hindu American Foundation are but a few of the national organizations working to protect civil rights and make an impact on public policies that affect their communities and the nation more broadly.

Chaplaincies in the armed services have also begun to change with the times. Not until the 1990s were Buddhist and Muslim chaplains considered for appointment to the armed forces. Indeed, during World War II, Muslim soldiers found that they were not permitted to have “Islam” inscribed on their dog tags to indicate their religious faith. It was not an option like “Catholic” or “Jewish.” Many settled for the category “Other.” Now that has changed. The Gulf War not only raised the question of how Americans relate to the Muslim world of the Middle East, but how Americans take account of the religious diversity of the United States that now includes Islam. In 1993, Army Chaplain Lt. Col. A-Rasheed Muhammad became the first Muslim chaplain to serve in the military. In 2010, a joint school for training military chaplains from diverse backgrounds was dedicated. In 2011, Captain Pratima Dharm became the U.S. Army’s first Hindu chaplain, a post she filled at Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland until she retired from the military in 2014.

The presence of other religious traditions, however, has been met with resistance from within the military. In 2006, Chaplain Don Larsen was withdrawn from the Chaplain Service Corps when he sought to change his endorsement from a Pentecostal Christian organization to a Pagan group, a move he felt reflected his own personal journey. Wiccans in particular have faced an uphill battle to have the pentacle, a symbol of their faith, recognized as a legitimate option for government-issued grave markers. The five pointed star was added to the list of accepted symbols in 2007, and the total number of options is now over 70.  

The campaign for lasting social and structural change regarding religious freedom within the military is ongoing. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog organization founded by lawyer and Air Force Academy graduate Michael Weinstein, successfully challenged the inclusion of “so help me God” from the Academy’s Honor Oath, and the MRFF continually lodges complaints in an effort to build a “wall separating church and state in the U.S. military.” Another group, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, opposes the idea that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” although the idea of humanist and atheist military chaplains has met formal resistance in Congress.

The prison system has also confronted new questions in an increasingly multireligious America. Islam was not recognized as a religious tradition in the prison system until 1962, a change brought about by litigation from Muslim prisoners (Fulwood v. Vlemmer). In the decades since then, however, Muslims have had to resort to litigation in one case after another to secure rights to religious services and the right to pray salat (five daily prayers). Securing halal food remains a struggle in many prisons, with lawsuits in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island garnering national headlines. In 1975, the first Muslim prison chaplain was hired by the state of New York; the New York State prison now has more than thirty Muslim chaplains, many of whom are a part of the Association of Muslim Chaplains, and a vigorous program of Islamic study. Marin County, California, has an Interfaith Jail Chaplaincy sponsored by the Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. Organizations like Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia also seek to support Muslim inmates. Simultaneously, organizations like the Prison Dharma Network have led the way in bringing Buddhist meditation, spirituality, and rehabilitation to the United States prison system. 

Public discussion of these civic issues often unites leaders and organizations of diverse religious traditions. In responding to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, for example, Muslim leaders from the American Muslim Council joined with leaders of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a joint public statement deploring any attempt to justify terrorism and violence in the name of religion. In a joint statement at the time of the U.N. Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, the two national bodies articulated their common views on the family and the “sanctity of human life.” The 9/11 Unity Walk is another example of a public interfaith response to a national crisis. The walk began in 2005 along Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. and has become an annual event that attracts over 1,000 participants and is broadcast nationally and internationally.

Increasingly, the public square is a space where the voices of people of many religious traditions are heard. In the early 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus warned of the “naked public square” in which religious values were in danger of being excluded from public discussion. He might have had in mind something like the 2011 decision by organizers of the 9/11 tenth anniversary service at Yankee Stadium to not invite any religious leaders to participate in the ceremony. Their actions drew sharp criticism, highlighting the fact that today it is more likely that the American public square is becoming the “multireligious public square” where many new voices contribute to the public discussion.

Additional Content

White House, Congress Note Muslim Presence in U.S.

The AMC Report
American Muslim Council
Summer 1991

Within a period of three months, spanning the Muslim festivals from Eid al-Fitr to Eid al-Adha, both the White House and Congress undertook historical initiatives in acknowledging Islam before the American people.

Responding to a query from the American Muslim Council regarding the executive branch’s responsibility to encourage religious tolerance and parity for all Americans, President Bush consented to video tape a special message to the American people on the occasion of the Eid al Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) which the Muslims observed on June 23. This marked the first time in American history that a Chief Executive has given special recognition to a Muslim religious commemoration.

Following the President’s decision, Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D – WV) requested that the House of Representatives be granted the opportunity to hear an invocation (opening prayer) from an Islamic representative. Historically only the Christian and Jewish Clergy have been acknowledged in this way.

Shortly thereafter, Rev. James D. Ford, the House Chaplain extended an invitation to Imam Siraj Wahaj of Brooklyn, NY to give the invocation on June 25. According to House records this was the first time that such an invitation has been extended to a Muslim.

Imam Siraj Wahaj is resident Imam for Masjid al-Taqwah in Brooklyn, a member of the Council of Imams of New York, and member of the Board of the American Muslim Council. He attracted national attention recently for his leadership against drugs and crime in his borough.

The twin events reflect the changing nature of the dialogue between Islam, the Judeo-Christian society and the secular establishment. It also reflects the growing impact that Islam is bringing to bear on the moral and cultural growth of the country.

With respect to the dialogue, such initiatives indicate that despite the distortion and misinformation about Islam in the media, the American public has begun to recognize the contributions of Islam, not only in world history but to the positive moral climate in America.

For Muslims this also suggests the need for greater involvement in the socio-political development of the country. In addressing the House, Imam Wahaj emphasized the Oneness of Allah and the unity of mankind.

Interweaving his comments with the opening Surah of the Quran, Al-Fatiha, he said, “Praise belongs to Thee who shaped us and colored us in the wombs of our mothers; colored us black and white, brown, red, and yellow. . . who made us into nations and tribes that we may know each other.” He asked Allah’s guidance upon the nation’s leaders.

Following the Imam’s invocation, scores of dignitaries attended a reception at the Capitol building, co-sponsored by Rep. Rahall and the AMC. Among those attending were several foreign ambassadors, including H.E. N. A. Shaikh of Pakistan, H.E. Al-Haji Z. M. Kazaure and Saad Baba of Nigeria, H.E. Abdulrahman Ramly of Indonesia, Abdellah Abdul Rahman Hasan of the UAE, H.E. Muhammad bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Dr. Adbulbaki Keskin of Turkey.

Each of the ambassadors, speaking in turn, complimented the AMC’s initiatives, expressed gratitude to Rep. Rahall and his colleagues and stated their delight in “being a part of this historic occasion.”

Others attending included Neal Lendenmann and Jeff Steel of the National Association of Arab Americans; Natasha Ghoneim, Jamal Kheri, Fedah Dahdul, Hamdi Elrefai and Greg Nojin of the Arab Anti-Defamation Committee; and N. Abba Kano of the Voice of America.

Attendees also included Abdulalim Shabazz of the Muslim Political Action Committee, Salim Abdus-Salam of the Muslim for Better America PAC, Thelset Alberdia, Mowahid Shah, Ibrahim Al-Wazir, Abdulhamid al-Kibsi, Dr. Hassan Ibrahim Hazim and Muhammad Tajuddin.

AMC officials and staff included Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, treasurer of the board; Abdurahman Alamoudi, executive director; Issa Smith, deputy director; Imam G.N. Kashif, director congressional affairs; Fareed Nu’man, senior research analyst, Ruqiyyah Abdus-Salaam, director of public relations; and Jacquie Muhammad, administrative assistant.

Prayer Delivered by Imam Siraj Wahaj
Before the House of Representatives
June 25, 1991

In the Name of Allah (God), Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise belongs to Thee alone, O Allah, Lord and Creator of all the worlds. Praise belongs to Thee Who shaped us and colored us in the wombs of our mothers; colored us black and white, brown, red and yellow.

Praise belongs to Thee, Who created us from males and females and made us into nations and tribes that we may know each other.

Most Gracious, Most Merciful, all Knowing, all Wise, Just God, Master of the Day of Judgment, Thee alone do we worship and from Thee alone do we seek help.

Guide the leaders of this nation, who have been given a great responsibility in worldly affairs. Guide them and grant them righteousness and wisdom. Guide them on the straight path. The path of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy favors. The path of your inspired servants. The path of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Guide them and us not on the path of the disobedient ones who have earned Thy wrath and displeasure. Amen.

Special Videotaped Remarks by President Bush

It is my pleasure, on the day American Muslims celebrate the feast of sacrifice, to offer each and every one of you my heartfelt best wishes.  Today, millions of Muslims in America and around the world commemorate the absolute faith and unquestioning obedience of the prophet Abraham who was ready at God’s command to sacrifice even his own son. Abraham’s example inspires three great religions. As children of Abraham, American Muslims gather today to honor their ancient faith. As Americans, your celebration affirms this nation’s allegiance to religious freedom for all.

The notion of religious tolerance lies at the heart of the American ideal. Many of our founders came here because the land promised religious tolerance. And today in America, all people are free to believe, free to worship as their minds and hearts tell them they must.

On this day of great joy for members of the Muslim faith, I ask everyone to remember the millions of men and women who are persecuted for their beliefs, forced to suffer for their faith.

[By permission of the American Muslim Council.]

Savannah Proclamation

The City of Savannah, Georgia
April 30, 1990

Al-Islam has been a vital part of the development of the United States of America, and the City of Savannah, Georgia, by promoting obedience to the established laws of the land and by encouraging abstinence from all that is wrong; and


The religion of Al-Islam encourages God-Consciousness among the Muslim citizens of Savannah, by forming associations with all right-minded Savannahians who make tremendous effort in the way of all that is good; and

The ethical system of the United States of America is in many respects consistent with the ethics upon which the religion of Al-Islam is based, also recognizing the need for this fact to be reflected in our referring to our Nation’s Code of Ethics as being “Judeo-Christian-Muslim Code of Ethics”; and

Al-Islam is presently the fastest growing religion in the world and in the United States of America, notwithstanding the fact that there exists historical documentation that many of the African slaves brought to our country were followers of the religion of Al-Islam;

NOW THEREFORE, I, John P. Rousakis, Mayor of the City of Savannah, in recognition of this religious community in Savannah, do hereby proclaim


In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the City of Savannah, Georgia to be affixed. This 30th day of April, 1990.

[Document in the Public Domain, Savannah Georgia.]

Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Muslim Council

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Muslim Council came together several times in the 1990s to issue joint statements on public issues of concern. The statements reflect an ongoing Catholic-Muslim dialogue begun in 1991.  In 1993, after the World Trade Center bombing in New York, the presidents of the two organizations, Archbishop William Keeler and Dr. Mahmoud Abu-Saud, issued the Joint Statement on Religion and Terrorism. In 1994, Archbishop Keeler joined with the Mohammed Aslam Cheema of the American Muslim Council in a joint statement addressed to the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development. 

Joint Statement on Terrorism and Religion Following the World Trade Center Bombing

News Release, April 17, 1993:

The President of an Islamic organization and the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a joint statement rejecting any effort to claim religious sanction for acts of aggression and terrorism.

“Together we urge all not to impugn whole peoples or their religions because of the despicable acts of some,” they said.

“Aggression and terrorism wherever they occur are to be condemned since they constitute an illegitimate use of force and therefore violate the law of God. This we affirm without qualification.

“With equally strong resolve we reject any effort to claim a religious inspiration or sanction for such contemptible acts. This misguided contention disfigures religion itself,” they said.

The joint statement was made public today by Dr. Mahmoud AbuSaud, President of the American Muslim Council, and Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The statement, the first ever issued jointly by the heads of these two national organizations, comes against the background of the World Trade Center bombing in New York, its aftermath, and similar recent acts of violence around the world. It constitutes a common set of general principles to guide discussion of these incidents.

Commenting on the statement, Archbishop Keeler said: “As President of the NCCB, I welcome this opportunity to join with the President of the Muslim Council, Dr. Mahmoud AbuSaud, our partner in dialogue, in addressing a matter which has been of great concern to all Americans and to people everywhere. This occasion is significant because the gravity of the topic has moved us to affirm these common values and because this is the first joint action of the Presidents of our two organizations.”

Archbishop Keeler and Dr. AbuSaud also reaffirmed their commitment to Christian-Muslim dialogue for eradicating misunderstanding and for the pursuit of common values, such as justice, peace, and respect for creation. Mutual understanding and growth in the religious life are prominent goals in interreligious dialogue and relations.

The joint statement on religion and terrorism is the first bilateral statement issued by the NCCB and AMC; it is not the first time the two organizations have joined in a written statement. On October 6, 1992, Cardinal Bernard Law, Chairman of the NCCB Committee on Migration, signed an interfaith appeal for Balkan refugees with representatives of the American Muslim Council, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America. In November Dr. AbuSaud’s name was added to those of Cardinal Law and others in letters to the Presidents of the United States, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Republics of Bosnia and Yugoslavia for the same rescue appeal.

The statement springs from a relationship established between the AMC and NCCB through a Catholic/Muslim national dialogue which they coordinate. The first meeting took place in October, 1991 and the second in October, 1992 with Dr. AbuSaud and Bishop Joseph Gerry of Portland, Maine, NCCB Episcopal Moderator for Interreligious Relations, co-presiding.

Several Catholic dioceses sponsor bilateral dialogues with Muslims while others send representatives to councils and commissions where Christians, Muslims, Jews and others come together on a regular basis. In their statement, Archbishop Keeler and Dr. AbuSaud urged Catholics and Muslims to continue these efforts and to pray and act in behalf of common values.

“On January 9,” Archbishop Keeler observed, “I had the wonderful honor of attending prayers in a mosque and to host the Imam of the Islamic Society in Baltimore for prayers at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Several religious leaders joined us for a pilgrimage to houses of prayer in Baltimore for peace in the Balkans, and we were together in spirit through our journeying, fasting and praying with those religious leaders gathered with Pope John Paul II in Assisi on the same day. Today, I am also honored to join with Dr. AbuSaud in this first joint statement of our organizations,” Archbishop Keeler stated.

The joint statement on religion and terrorism:

As the Presidents of two organizations that have been codirecting a national dialogue between Catholics and Muslims for two years, we declare our agreement on general principles to guide discussions of such incidents as the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.

Together we urge all not to impugn whole peoples or their religions because of the despicable acts of some.

Aggression and terrorism wherever they occur are to be condemned since they constitute an illegitimate use of force and therefore violate the law of God. This we affirm without qualification.

With equally strong resolve we reject any effort to claim a religious inspiration or sanction for such contemptible acts. This misguided contention disfigures religion itself.

It is important at this time for us to reaffirm our commitment to one another. A major goal of Christian-Muslim dialogue is to eradicate misrepresentations of Islam, Christianity, and the history of Christian-Muslim relations. Another goal is to cooperate in pursuit of common values, in particular, justice, peace, and respect for creation.

We are encouraged by the fact that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims is already taking place in several American cities.

As the Presidents of the American Muslim Council and of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops we call upon our faithful to come together to dialogue, to pray, and to act in behalf of our common values.


Joint Statement on the occasion of the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development

August 31, 1994

“We agree that abortion is an evil. The coercion of abortion, whether subtle or overt, is repugnant to us,” said Mohammed Aslam Cheema, president of the American Muslim Council, and Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a joint statement released Sept. 1 at a news conference in New York. Issues addressed in the statement included the equality of women and men, the abuse of women, development and the family. “Our positions are based on teachings and moral principles rooted in our earliest traditions. We share a special reverence for life,” the statement said. “Spelled out clearly in the teachings of both traditions is the right of every individual for true development in all dimensions, social, cultural and spiritual, with justice and equality for all so that every person will have the opportunity to experience the divine gifts of dignity and peace,” the statement said. It added that for Muslims and Catholics “the family is the principal school of virtues, the primary school of religious instruction.”  It said that the teachings of Catholics and Muslims “are nuanced differently with regard to methods of family planning, but we agree that one goal of the divinely ordained marriage between a husband and wife is the creation of new life.” The statement said that “no government or nongovernmental agency outside the family should provide counsel or services to unmarried adolescents without the knowledge and express consent of their parents.” It said everyone should have the opportunity for an education, including women and male and female children. Such rights and issues related to development “should be the primary points for engaging nations rather than means of population control,” the statement said. The statement follows:

At the invitation of the American Muslim Council to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, we, the presidents of these two organizations which have cooperated on several projects in the past, now issue this joint statement on certain aspects of the current public discussion of the upcoming Cairo conference.

This statement represents another step in an ongoing relationship between our two organizations. We recall other important steps together, in particular a previous joint statement on religion and terrorism issued April 16, 1993, in the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. That statement was issued with the signatures of Dr. Cheema’s predecessor, Dr. Mahmoud AbuSaud, and of Archbishop Keeler, when we condemned acts of terrorism and declared our agreement on certain general principles. We concluded that statement by expressing our encouragement that dialogue between Catholics and Muslims was already taking place in several American cities.

In 1991, the participants in the first national dialogue between Catholics and Muslims, which our organizations cosponsored, attested that this dialogue would seek to join together for the realization of common values. Our organizations cosponsored a second national dialogue and have cooperated on a number of other projects; especially noteworthy were an interfaith appeal for Balkan refugees and a prayer vigil for peace coinciding with the interfaith prayer vigil hosted by Pope John Paul II in Assisi on Jan. 9, l993.

This statement on the Cairo conference therefore, is that of a partnership with a history and with ongoing consultation. Even now our staff are discussing, in a preliminary way, a proposal to convene our national dialogue on certain aspects of marriage and family life.

The worldwide discussion about the draft program of action for the International Conference on Population and Development, called by the United Nations in Cairo next week, has motivated us to make this joint statement today. We draw attention to important values which we share with regard to topics on the agenda. Our positions are based on teachings and moral principles rooted in our earliest traditions.

We share a special reverence for life. For Catholics this is often summarized under the expression “the sanctity of human life,” which includes respect for the life and dignity of every human being, born and unborn. Muslims fully agree with this; in addition they recite specific passages in the holy Quran against the great evil of the killing of children, which at the time of the prophet often meant female infanticide. Spelled out clearly in the teachings of both traditions is the right of every individual for true development in all dimensions, social, cultural and spiritual with justice and equality for all, so that every person will have the opportunity to experience the divine gifts of dignity and peace. We agree that care must be taken to distinguish the God-given right to development for every person in the human community and a false individualism that puts self-centered goals before the good of others. Such individualism is antithetical to our understandings of social justice.

We agree that abortion is an evil. The coercion of abortion, whether subtle or overt, is repugnant to us. We join our voices with Pope John Paul II, the scholars of Al Azhar University and leaders throughout the world calling on the Cairo conference to reaffirm the decision of the 1984 Mexico City international conference that all nations should “take appropriate steps to help women avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning, and whenever possible provide for the humane treatment and counseling of women who have had recourse to abortion.” Our solemn concern is that, in preparation for this meeting on population and development, access to abortion is being discussed as a policy of population control and even as a legitimate aspect of reproductive health care or fertility regulation. We join all those calling upon nations affirming policies of permissive abortion to cease the massive deaths of the unborn and the severe harm to women who undergo abortions.

For Muslims and Catholics alike, the family is the principal school of virtues, the primary school of religious instruction. We endorse wholeheartedly the rights of the family to organize its own religious life in the home and under the control of the parents. The family is the basic unit not only for society but for a just and holy society.

A family is a sacred relationship among persons. A family proceeds from the marriage between a man and a woman, and this formative bond of families is divinely mandated. We agree that the union of a wife and husband is intended to be an intimate, exclusive, permanent and faithful partnership, even though our traditions may have differing practices regarding some of these aspects. Even though we are compassionately aware that there are large numbers of single parent families, we are distressed at current efforts to redefine family and other developments that devalue marriage.

Our views of the family, based upon revelation as we each understand it, also draw attention to our similar teachings on the holiness and integrity of human sexuality. The climate of sexual permissiveness which is prevalent in some parts of the world stands in stark contrast to our teachings on the family and human sexuality. It further underscores with urgency the rights and responsibilities of parents for the moral and sexual education of the future generation. No government or non governmental agency outside the family should provide counsel or services to unmarried adolescents without the knowledge and express consent of their parents.

Our teachings are nuanced differently with regard to methods of family planning, but we agree that one goal of the divinely ordained marriage between a husband and wife is the creation of new life.

Development in connection with population growth is indeed the major focus of the Cairo conference. We join all men and women of good will in stating our agreement that true development is based on meeting the needs of every human person and the common good. Muslims and Christians are committed to meeting the needs of the poor. The serious ecological questions and other issues regarding land use, efficient production and distribution of food provide us with the opportunities to affirm our moral principles and to overcome the temptation of selfishness. Every human being has a right to participate fully in economic and social development. Everyone should have the opportunity for an education, and this is equally true for women and for male and female children. These rights and issues should be the primary points for engaging nations rather than means of population control.

The Conference on Population and Development focuses also on the equality of women in dignity and rights. The particular gifts of women as teachers of the faith, bestowers of values, imparters of wisdom, leaders of projects and officeholders have sustained our two traditions from their origins. Development and expansion of the roles of women in society and the educational and health needs of women, which are insufficiently met across the world, should be addressed by nations. Abuse and violence against women, whether individually or collectively, whether motivated by sinfulness or cultural biases, should be condemned and action taken for the eradication of abuse, violence and neglect of women and girls everywhere.

Discussion of population, consumption and resources purely for demographic objectives too often leads to the imposition of standards and policies of some nations on other nations. As members of the two largest religious groups on Earth, embracing the human family extensively on every continent in rich and poor nations alike, we are acutely aware of the need for arriving at universally accepted procedures and policies. Therefore, we plead that the language of the final text on the issues which are of critical concern to us be unambiguous and not open to opposing interpretations.

It is indeed critical to hear from religious communities because they provide moral and inspirational perspectives on these critical issues. Religion is very much a part of the lives of people in the United States and throughout the world, providing sustenance and knowledge for addressing ultimate questions of meaning and the human condition. With ancient wisdom and extensive resources of knowledge and skills, religious communities are committed to meeting the profound needs of all and to respect for the Earth.

We express together our concern about the crass labeling of the positions of Muslims on population and development issues as “fundamentalist,” implying they are extremists, when they indeed are speaking from the heart of their tradition. We also wish to note for the record that the Holy See has had diplomatic relations with countries with Muslim majorities, a practice which can be traced back even to ancient times. Full diplomatic relations with many “Islamic” nations have been on the public record for a long time.

We conclude by noting that there are threats of violence against those who will attend this important International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. We reiterate these sentences from our 1993 joint statement: “Aggression and terrorism wherever they occur are to be condemned since they constitute an illegitimate use of force and therefore violate the law of God… With equally strong resolve we reject any effort to claim a religious inspiration or sanction for such contemptible acts.”

[“Joint Statement on Terrorisim and Religion Following the World Trade Center Bombing”; “Joint Statement on the ocassion of the U.N. Cairo Conference on Population and Development” (First printed via Catholic News Service Documentary Service, Vol. 24, No. 14, pp. 250-252). 15 September 1994. American Muslim Council and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.usccb.org.]

“Atheists Seek a Place Among Military Chaplains”

The New York Times
April 26, 2011

James Dao

In the military, there are more than 3,000 chaplains who minister to the spiritual and emotional needs of active duty troops, regardless of their faiths. The vast majority are Christians, a few are Jews or Muslims, one is a Buddhist. A Hindu, possibly even a Wiccan may join their ranks soon.

But an atheist?

Strange as it sounds, groups representing atheists and secular humanists are pushing for the appointment of one of their own to the chaplaincy, hoping to give voice to what they say is a large — and largely underground — population of nonbelievers in the military.

[For full article, visit “Atheists Seek a Place Among Military Chaplains.”]

“Interfaith School for Military Chaplains Dedicated”

USA Today/The Associated Press
May 7, 2010

Susanne M. Schafer

Priests, rabbis, imams and Protestant ministers who serve as U.S. military chaplains came together Thursday to dedicate themselves and the nation’s first joint military school for tending warriors’ souls.

“We deploy side-by-side. We minister to all, side-by-side. It is only fitting that we train side-by-side,” said Chaplain Maj. Gen. Cecil Richardson, the Air Force Chief of Chaplains, at the dedication of the new Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center

Congress ordered the military services five years ago to merge their disparate chaplain and chaplain assistant schools. Representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force said they put aside differences of military culture to build a multi-faith education center.

[For full article, visit “Interfaith School for Military Chaplains Dedicated.”]

“Wiccan Symbol OK On Military Headstones”

NBC News/The Associated Press
April 23, 2007

The Wiccan pentacle has been added to the list of emblems allowed in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of fallen soldiers, according to a settlement announced Monday.

A settlement between the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Wiccans adds the five-pointed star to the list of “emblems of belief” allowed on VA grave markers.

Eleven families nationwide are waiting for grave markers with the pentacle, said Selena Fox, a Wiccan high priestess with Circle Sanctuary in Barneveld, Wis., a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

[For full article, visit “Wiccan Symbol OK On Military Headstones.”]

“A Wiccan Army Chaplain? The Brass Wouldn’t Buy It”

The Seattle Times 
February 24, 2007

Alan Cooperman

The night wind pushes Don Larsen’s green robe against his lanky frame. A circle of torches lights his face.

“The old gods are standing near!” calls a retired Army intelligence officer.

“To watch the turning of the year!” replies the wife of a soldier wounded in Iraq.

“What night is this?” calls a former fighter pilot.

“It is the night of Imbolc,” responds Larsen, a former Army chaplain.

Of the 16 self-described witches who have gathered on this Texas plain to celebrate a late-winter pagan festival, all but two are current or former military personnel. Each has a story. None can compete with Larsen’s.

[For full article, visit “A Wiccan Army Chaplain? The Brass Wouldn’t Buy It.”]

“U.S. Army’s First Hindu Chaplain”

Odyssey Networks

In May of 2011, Pratima Dharm became the U.S. Army’s first Hindu chaplain. Currently assigned to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Chaplain Capt. Dharm says she spends most of her time reaching across faiths ministering to ill and wounded service members. “Human dignity is the greatest gift you can give someone,” says Dharm, who, during the course of her career, has spent a year in Iraq on active duty. Born and raised in a Hindu family in India, Dharm first came to the U.S. in 2001. In 2006, she joined the military, which counts approximately 1,000 Hindus in its ranks.

[To view introduction and video, visit “U.S. Army’s First Hindu Chaplain.”]

Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith-Based Community Ini

Remarks by

John Kerry, Secretary of State 

Shaun Casey, Special Advisor

Melissa Rogers, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Washington, DC
August 7, 2013

Video available on YouTube.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Good morning, everybody. Please be seated. Thank you very, very much. Sorry to be a moment late. I apologize. Really delighted to be here this morning for this singular, historic initiative. And it’s a great pleasure for me to be able to take part in this.

I’m convinced that all of you will agree that one of the toughest challenges that we face in terms of global diplomacy and relationships around the world between peoples nowadays, from sectarian strife to the challenges of many intractable, frozen conflicts, to the challenges of simply understanding people – one people to another – or even monumental challenges like the sectarian strife that we see tearing countries and regions apart, as well as the enormous challenges of things like global climate change, which really is a challenge to our responsibilities as the guardians – safe guarders of God’s creation.

As Secretary of State, and before that as a senator for 29 years, I have met with faith-based leaders all across the world, had the privilege, obviously, of running for President of the United States, met with many members of our faith-based community here in our country, and I have met with people of all religions and of all life philosophies and belief systems. And that experience has only reaffirmed my belief that there is much more that unites us, and should unite us, than divides us. 

Gandhi called the world’s religions beautiful flowers from the same garden, and I had the privilege of giving an address at Yale University a number of years ago to a gathering of evangelicals from around America and imams, muftis, ayatollahs, clerics from the Muslim world – an improbable gathering you might think at first blush. And for three days people worked and struggled with the effort to find the common ground. And there is common ground between the Abrahamic faiths, and, in fact, between the Abrahamic faiths and all religions and philosophies, whether you’re talking about Hindu or Confucianism or any other of the many of the world’s different approaches to our existence here on the planet and to our relationship with a supreme being.

All of these faiths are virtuous and they are in fact, most of them, tied together by the golden rule, as well as fundamental concerns about the human condition, about poverty, about relationships between people, our responsibilities each to each other. And they all come from the same human heart.

As leaders and citizens, particularly people in public life, everybody talks about how we draw strength from the example of our faith communities – but not enough people actually translate those words into actions or policies or life philosophies. And so I think whether it’s our teachers, our activists, our religious leaders who work to heal, we learn a great deal, which stands in stark contrast to violent extremists who seek to destroy and never talk about building a school or a community, or providing health care or succor to anybody.

So we need to recognize that in a world where people of all faiths are migrating and mingling like never before, where we are this global community, which we always talk about, we ignore the global impact of religion, in my judgment, at our peril. And I have talked at length with people like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or even King Abdullah, Prince Ghazi of Jordan, and others who are engaged in interfaith efforts, all of whom recognize that their religion, Islam, has to a large measure been hijacked by people who have no real depth with respect to what the faith in fact preaches, but who interpret it in ways that lead people to conflict and even to violence. 

So it’s not really enough just to talk about a better dialogue. I think we have to stand up and deliver one. And that’s why I am very proud today to announce the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives here at the State Department. Its mission is as clear as it is compelling: It is to engage more closely with faith communities around the world, with the belief that we need to partner with them to solve global challenges, and there is an enormous partnership, I believe, there for the asking.

Many of you know that we already have a number of leaders here at the State Department that work on issues related to religion, including our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. And I want to say that I have great respect for and enormous gratitude for their efforts, and these leaders are important and will remain equally as important. But I believe that their work will be enhanced by this effort. And the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives will grow our ability to be able to reach out to more communities and to create greater understanding between peoples and countries.

The office grows out of the recommendations of the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, and I want to thank its members, many of whom are here today, for their leadership. It also grows out of the U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, which underscores the Obama Administration’s commitment to working with communities of faith to advance our shared goals. And you will hear in a moment from our representative from the White House with respect to that.

Engagement – the engagement that I’m talking about is a two-way street. Our job at the State Department is not just to proclaim or to stand up and pontificate about the things that we want. We have to listen to people about the things that they want. And everybody here today has played a valuable role in promoting the development of countries or preventing conflict, advancing human dignity all across the globe. So we launch this office with a clear intent to keep our door open and to work as cooperatively as possible with all of you.

I am genuinely excited about the possibilities of this. Around the world, from Egypt to Ethiopia, from Peru to Pakistan, religious leaders every day are taking on some of the toughest challenges that we face. They’re healing communities. They’re providing counsel to families. They’re working in partnership with governments for the enduring health of our planet and its people.

So I say to my fellow State Department employees, all of them, wherever you are, I want to reinforce a simple message: I want you to go out and engage religious leaders and faith-based communities in our day-to-day work. Build strong relationships with them and listen to their insights and understand the important contributions that they can make individually and that we can make together. You will have the support of this Department in doing so, and you will have great leadership from my friend, Dr. Shaun Casey, who is going to lead the charge to integrate our engagement with faith communities with our diplomacy and with our development work.

I met Shaun back in 2005. Mike McCurry, who I see sitting back here, introduced us at a dinner. And we became friends in that process and pilgrims on a similar mission, if you will – a professor of theology who has always been interested in politics, and a politician who has always had a lifelong interest in religion. In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today. We’ve had many discussions together about these. And over the years, I’ve come to appreciate Shaun as a deeply thoughtful person who cares about the place of faith in our public life.

And I want to emphasize this to everybody because I know the question will be out there: Is this sort of a departure from the norm? No. We approach this with the full recognition and understanding of – Thomas Jefferson’s understanding and admonition about the wall of separation between church and state. But what we are doing is guided by the conviction that we have to find ways to translate our faiths into efforts that unify for the greater good. That can be done without crossing any lines whatsoever.

One of my favorite passages from the Scripture sums up what Shaun and I think this effort is really all about. It’s a familiar Gospel of Mark in which Jesus says to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many.”

I believe that public leadership is now and always has been and should be a form of service. It requires a bona fide effort to give to others and to do for others. And it is the kind of commitment that Shaun has exemplified throughout his life, which has been selfless and devoted and heartfelt.

So each of us, I believe, needs to do our best to answer this call of service and to help each other to hear it in a common spirit of obedience, humility, and love. I’m enormously grateful that Shaun has answered that call, that he has been willing to come here to the Department to help us integrate these policies, and really to magnify, augment, grow our capacity to meet the challenges of this planet.

No one would sit here today, or anywhere else, and suggest that we’re doing such a good job everywhere that we don’t need to bring more people to the table. It is clear, with the numbers of failed states and failing states and growing youthful populations around the world who feel disenfranchised and disconnected and unable to find jobs or get the education they need, we have work to do together and we need everybody at the table. And that’s what this is about.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Shaun Casey. (Applause.)

MR. CASEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your kind remarks. I’m humbled that you’ve asked me to help launch this initiative, and I’m thankful to you for the opportunity to contribute to your work as Secretary of State. 

I see so many of my friends in this audience. I’m not going to begin to call names or we’d be here a very, very long time, but I’m deeply touched that you’re here. I am blessed by the fruit of the long and deep conversations I’ve had and the relationships, so thank you and bless you for coming.

I also want to recognize my wife Ann, my daughter Sarah. I want to thank them for their love, their patience, their toleration that they have modeled toward me over the years. (Applause.) Yeah, please. (Applause.) But I’m deeply touched that you’re all here.

Mr. Secretary, several years ago, you and I started a conversation about the rich, diverse, and complicated public implications of religious belief and practice. At that time, some were claiming that religion poisons everything, while others were saying that religion would save and solve everything. You knew, however, that the reality was somewhere in between. 

I remember thinking at the time how unusual it was for a public figure to see the potential in and the power of religious groups tackling extreme poverty, convincing people to combat global climate change, fighting for global human rights, mitigating conflict and building peace, even at a time when others focused on those religious folk who committed acts of violent extremism, perversely claiming justice in the name of their own faith. From that day forward, I admired your willingness to defy the conventional wisdom that dictated religion was a purely private, personal choice, and thus communities bounded by faith must be entirely left outside of discussions of policy. That is why, today, engaging these communities in the context of policy has always struck me as being a matter of very great and deep importance. Let me briefly describe why we are expanding religious engagement and how we will go about doing that engagement.

The answer to the “why” question is straightforward: As religious leaders and faith communities shape their environments, they also have an influence and shape our own foreign policy concerns here in the United States. It’s essential for the United States to understand them and to bring them into our diplomacy and development efforts.

The Obama Administration has emphasized from the outset the need to build strong relationships with religious actors and to collaborate with them on a variety of fronts, from conflict prevention and mitigation, to promoting human rights, to fostering development. The presence of my good friend Melissa Rogers here from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is evidence of the commitment from the Obama Administration from the outset in this arena.

How then will we proceed to do this form of engagement? First of all, we will ensure that our engagement efforts will be consistent with the United States Constitution and other laws, both in terms of the spirit and letter of the law.

Second, we will collaborate with the immense talent already working in the State Department in terms of various aspects of religion. Secretary Kerry alluded to the working group that helped lay the ground for the creation of this new office, but let me mention some of the people who are already working very hard in this space: Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, and Special Representative to Muslim Communities Farah Pandith, not to mention the many leaders of our regional and function bureaus and our officers serving at posts around the world.

I’m deeply impressed by the depth of talent and commitment already in this building on this range of religious engagement issues. The point is that our collaboration with my office is not to design and create a new silo that addresses religion in an isolated manner. Rather we are seeking to multiply the engagement with religion that already exists across the bureaus and offices of this great organization.

And thirdly, we seek to be fair; we seek to be accessible and transparent in our engagement. This means, among other things, that we have much to learn from our partners across the globe. Our engagement has to be a two-way or sometimes multi-way dialogue that builds trust so that we can build – make progress towards our mutual goals.

I’m reminded today of Reinhold Niebuhr, a man who walked these halls some 60 years ago, trying to dispense his advice to anybody who would listen to him as he ranged through the hallways here, especially about how the United States in that era should navigate the complex waters of foreign policy in the aftermath of World War II and during the birth pangs of what we now know as the Cold War.

I think we find ourselves today in a similarly complex “in between” time, as was the case in the late 1940s. Niebuhr feared at that age that America might be distracted by several things in its foreign policy that might have led the country astray. Among those was perhaps an inordinate pride in our own power and our own virtue, and also the absence of a clear path about how to negotiate a post-World War II map as well as the emerging Communist bloc.

Now in contrast, he was preaching a message of chastened wisdom in which the United States Government engaged in the slow, and at times difficult, process of diplomacy, willing to courageously pursue justice and peace while exercising American leadership in a very muddled and confused world.

I’d like to think that Niebuhr would approve of our efforts today in expanding religious engagement as we, too, navigate through very perilous times. Thank you very much. (Applause.) 

And now I want to introduce my friend, Melissa Rogers, from the – Director of the White House Faith-Based Office of Neighborhood Partnerships. Melissa. Thank you. (Applause.)

MS. ROGERS: Thank you so much, Shaun. Good morning. I’m honored to be here today. Let me thank Secretary Kerry for his leadership and my friend Shaun Casey for the leadership he will provide in the days and years ahead. Secretary Kerry has chosen the right person for this important task.

I also want to thank everyone, including the many who are in this room, who have labored for years to bring this day about. This is your day too, and it’s a cause for celebration for all of us. Let me say a word of thanks for your vision and for your work.

For millions of people, here in the United States and in countries around the world, faith is a fundamental part of their identity. It shapes who they are and how they understand the world around them. It provides a sense of community and a network of support.

We have seen the power of religion throughout human history. In our own country, for example, we’ve seen religious leaders join with others in championing causes like abolition, civil rights, and the eradication of poverty. In so doing, these advocates have often led our nation to heed the better angels of its nature. Similarly, around the world, on issues ranging from health to education to conflict prevention, religious and other civil society leaders are tackling some of our most pressing challenges. They help create more peaceful and secure communities. Of course, as we know all too well, there are also times when religion is abused to promote violence and destabilize communities. 

The potential for religious communities to spark both positive and negative movement makes it essential for the United States to understand these communities and to engage with them. As the State Department does its work around the world, it must have a firm grasp of these dynamics and it must know how to address them in ways that are informed and intelligent. Under Shaun’s leadership, this new office will help the Department to accomplish these goals.

The office will also help spearhead a new Administration strategy that encourages engagement with religious and other community actors to advance three critical objectives: First, promoting sustainable development and a more effective humanitarian response. Civil society organizations and leaders, including religious ones, are addressing key issues such as poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS prevention, and child survival. By working in partnership with religious and other community leaders, and with other governmental agencies, of course, like USAID, we hope to better protect the most vulnerable among us. And by ensuring that development and humanitarian assistance programs are mindful of the very important religious aspects in the context where these programs are administered, we hope to overcome some of the misunderstandings surrounding our assistance.

The second objective is advancing pluralism and human rights, including the protection of religious freedom. Our engagement with religious and other civil society leaders should strive to promote pluralism and respect for the human rights of all people, including members of minority or marginalized groups. Now, we understand that sometimes civil society leaders and institutions may disagree with our positions on certain issues, but we’re committed to having the conversation. Increasing our engagement with a diverse spectrum of religious as well as secular communities will help us to underscore the universality of these critical rights. And here, the new office, of course, will work closely with the Office of International Religious Freedom, among many other State Department offices.

The third objective is preventing, mitigating, and resolving violent conflict to enhance local and regional stability and security. While it is critical to understand the ways in which religion can be manipulated to exacerbate conflict, religion is not an inherent source of conflict or violent extremism. Strategic engagement with religious leaders can help us to break cycles of violent conflict.

Now, as Shaun and Secretary Kerry have said, a guiding principle for all of this work will be that our actions must be consistent with the United States Constitution. Employees of our government can and should engage faith-based leaders and communities on US policy priorities just as they do other civil society leaders and communities. At the same time, our precious religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment mean that we must observe some special rules when we engage religious actors and matters, such as ensuring governmental neutrality toward faith. All diplomatic and consular posts will receive guidance and continuing assistance on these important issues.

From the start, the Obama Administration has emphasized building strong relationships with religious and other civil society leaders and working with them on a variety of issues. It’s already been mentioned that the State Department has conducted a dialogue with civil society, a project that includes the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. This group has helped lead us to this day and will continue to be a valuable resource. And in addition to our own White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, many federal agencies have Centers for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships that regularly work with community organizations – both religious and secular – to serve people in need. And by the way, I’d like to thank Joshua DuBois and Mara Vanderslice Kelly, who have provided terrific leadership on these issues for many years.

Thus, we are building on a strong foundation as we seek to institutionalize our outreach across departments and agencies to make engaging religious and other civil society leaders a routine part of the way we do business. And under Shaun’s leadership, I have no doubt that this new office is going to play a key role in advancing that agenda. But of course, to do this work effectively, we will need your help.

We are so grateful for this new opportunity that this office and these strategies provide to partner with you in new ways, and we look forward to working with you to advancing the common good in the days ahead.

Thank you so much. (Applause.)

[“Remarks at the Launch of the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. The U.S. Department of State. www.state.gov. August 7, 2013. Full text and video link available online at www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/08/212781.htm.]