Faith In The World

Joseph K. Grieboski January/February 2004

It is time to acknowledge the atrocious treatment that people of faith receive around the world. It is time to send the governments of these nations clear messages that they cannot persecute people of faith while the world stands silently by. It is time to acknowledge that China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan each fit precisely the characteristics of a "country of particular concern" as defined by American law. To do anything less is a clear signal that they can continue their brutal subjugation of people of faith with impunity, while America watches and remains silent.

In the five years since the unanimous passage by the United States Congress of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, the state of freedom of religion around the globe has not improved; in actuality, it
has worsened.

A rampant disregard is growing globally for the rights of religious believers at the hands of governments and with the complicity of religious leaders. For example, the past several years have brought the legislative discrimination of religious minorities at the hands of national governments in several countries; exportation of dangerous anti-religious legislation; attempts to bolster legally the status of national religions at the expense of other faiths; and government-created atmospheres of religious intolerance, which lead to societal and community violence against religious minorities.

While the State Department's last annual Report on International Religious Freedom accurately portrays the generalities and basic facts with regard to the status of freedom of religion globally, it fails to indicate the more subtle realities of the impact of violations of freedom of conscience on national and regional security, refugees, and on overall international human rights standards. For example, the executive summary states, "Some democratic states in Western Europe have undertaken policies resulting in the stigmatization of minority religions, the result of identifying them indiscriminately and often inaccurately with dangerous 'sects' or 'cults.' These practices are troubling in that other nations struggling toward democracy, as well as certain nondemocratic states, are adopting 'anti-cult' laws and policies that are based in part on those of Western Europe. In nondemocratic nations, lacking a tradition of commitment to human rights and rule of law, 'anti-cult' laws could easily be implemented in ways that result in the persecution of people of faith."

The very fact that these items are included in the executive summary is a positive step, as none of these items are included in the body of the Western Europe reports. To characterize the treatment of religious minorities as "troubling," leading one to believe that the state's actions are solely one of misidentification, is dangerous and erroneous. In France, for instance, the About-Picard law passed in 2001 establishes a new crime of "mental manipulation" that is not defined anywhere in French law. Institute on Religion and Public Policy staff met with one French official who said that "mental manipulation is similar to pornography in the United States; we'll know it when we see it." This law goes on further to bring about serious criminal and civil punishments—including closings of religious institutions and all related organizations, fines, and even barring access to one's own children. This is much more serious and concrete than simply identifying an organization as a sect or cult.

Further, the executive summary makes reference to the exportation by elements of the French government of the About-Picard model. Yet neither the summary nor the report itself notes that officials of the Interministerial Commission to Battle Sects and Cults—an official government agency whose head reports directly to the prime minister—visited 88 countries in a period of only three years. I would challenge the committee to investigate whether or not the Office of International Religious Freedom at State has the resources, manpower, and mandate to visit as many countries in the same period of time. I would venture to guess that it could not.

There are other equally egregious oversights in the report relating to issues previously mentioned. However, one cannot place the blame on the Office of International Religious Freedom. Their hard work, dedication to the issue, and fulfillment of American commitments to international agreements—and domestic law—are unquestionable.

The problems lie in the overall attitude and understanding of the role of religion and freedom of conscience in American foreign policy. From the bureaucratic obstacles and intellectual and philosophical antipathy regarding the issue in the United States government, to the lack of understanding, interest, and attention of individuals within the administration, to the lack of direction, misunderstanding of role and position, and inappropriate actions and sentiments of institutions established by law to "work" on international religious freedom, the issue of international freedom of conscience is not taken seriously.

The right to life, the right to freedom of religion or belief, and respect for religious and cultural heritage are the basic premises for human existence. The fact that there are still many places today where the right to gather for worship is either not recognized or is limited to the members of one religion alone, or where religious belief is pushed aside in the name of development or "modern thought," is a sad commentary on any claim to a more just, peaceful world on which fundamental rights and freedoms are more widely promoted and respected.

Religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. This means a liberty that is not reduced to the private sphere only. To discriminate against religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action, as well as a benevolent and brotherly attitude, should exist. This will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspect, not conductive to social peace.

All peoples have the right to express their faith and religious beliefs as they so wish according to the dictates of their minds, hearts, and consciences, immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to their own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits.

Differences between religious traditions must be accepted, respected, and tolerated. The practice of any faith must be conducted with respect for other religious traditions. Religious tolerance must be based on the conviction that God wishes to be adored by people who are free. This is a conviction that requires us to respect and honor personal conscience, wherein each person meets God.

When such respect and understanding is not realized, and when the differences in religious belief or conviction lead to civil strife and war, there is a need for mutual forgiveness.
The United States government must accept its awesome responsibility of both protecting American vital interests and promoting American values in its bilateral relationships and discussions. It falls upon American government institutions to remind foreign governments of their international commitments regarding freedom of conscience and protection of minority rights. The United States must have a flexible foreign policy that allows it to hold its allies to the same criteria and levels to which it holds its opponents.

The fate of religious minorities around the globe rests on the willingness of courageous souls, called by virtue and filled with the desire to promote liberty and justice, to resist the temptation of apathy and speak for truth.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of their rights.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief. Everyone has the freedom alone or in community with others and without any outside interference to express their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance, within the limitations that are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights or freedoms of others. No one must be persecuted or denied their rights because of their religious beliefs. No discrimination or privileges based on affiliation or rejection of affiliation to a religion are acceptable.

Joseph K. Grieboski is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Washington, D.C.
Article Author: Joseph K. Grieboski