The State Department today clarified Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks made last week during his Africa visit, in which he made comments that some religious groups and conservative commentators took as a slight toward organized religion.
During a May 1 stop at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Kerry said, "Some people believe that people ought to be able to only do what they say they ought to do, or to believe what they say they ought to believe, or live by their interpretation of something that was written down a thousand plus, two thousand years ago."
That was troubling to, among others, syndicated conservative talk-show host Steve Deace, as well as Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who wanted Kerry to explain what he meant, and sent an email blast to members urging them to contact the State Department.
"It begs the question, is he directly taking aim at the Ten Commandments? Is he, in fact, questioning the moral authority of Jesus and what he was instructing his disciples? Or was it aimed at Muslims and the Koran? I don't know," Donohue told ABC News Thursday.
A State Department official explained today that Kerry was making a "reference to the Sunni-Shia [Muslim] split and sectarian violence."
Earlier in his remarks in Addis Ababa, Kerry had made a reference to violence in the region: "Some very persistent, dangerous conflicts - one right next door - are threatening to pull at least some countries back into an era that we really had hoped we had left behind."
Islamist militant groups have long had an active presence in northern Africa, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a core Qaeda affiliate, and various offshoots of that group.
Reached for comment today, Donohue said he didn't think the State Department's explanation resolved anything.
"I read the statement that he gave [in Ethiopia], and I don't recall any kind of conversation about the Sunni-Shia split. It's incumbent upon him to be specific. Quite frankly, he needs to be explicit," he said.
Members of Donohue's organization contacted the State Department earlier this week after Donohue sent an email blast to what he said were thousands of members, urging them to email State's press duty officer, usually a point of contact used by reporters.
Donohue then said a State staffer called the Catholic League twice asking him to remove the on-duty officer's email address and instead refer his members to the generic website where members of the public contact the State Department.
At first, Donohue said, he declined to change the contact he had given his members. "Of course not. We don't take on marching orders from the federal government. We give them their salaries," he said.
But after the second phone call, Donohue agreed to change it. A link on the Catholic League website now directs users to the generic State Department contact form.
The State Department official who responded to ABC today suggested that Donohue exaggerated the number of Catholic League members who contacted Foggy Bottom.
"The State Department's press office received a tiny number of emails on this, and wasn't remotely inundated. The account these public inquiries were directed to is one reserved for media inquiries. Our press office reached administrators for Catholic League and recommended a more appropriate destination for their inquiries," the official said.
The official declined to provide a ballpark number of emails State received regarding Kerry's comments but reiterated that it was "minimal."
But Donohue, most recently in the news for urging his members to boycott Guinness beer after the brand voiced support for LGBT rights, questioned why State contacted him repeatedly if the emails had not become problematic.
"Why did they call twice?" he asked ABC News.