July 13th, 2008 at 5:00 pm
Dust off your thinking. Religious freedom is not just a history issue. We need 21st century voices in suppport of liberty for all humanity. I attended a Religion and Foreign Policy workshop recently in New York, sponsored by The US Council on Foreign Relations. A look at the status of religious freedom was provided by Paul Marshall* and an insightful reflection by Richard Sieple** chronicled both success and failures of promoting religious freedom worldwide. Today, religious freedom and religious persecution affect all religious groups – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism as well as small religious groups like Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witness or Judaism.
It may come as a surprise to some people, but religious freedom is not an exclusively western achievement. Religious freedom can be found on every continent. Estonia and Hungary are among the freest countries in the world. In Marshall’s survey Japan, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Botswana, Mali, Namibia, Senegal and South Africa score better than do Belgium, France, Germany and Greece.
Violations of religious freedom, likewise, happen worldwide. The most egregious persecuting states tend to be either communist (North Korea, China), nationalist (Burma, Eritrea) or radical Islamist (Iran, Saudi Arabia). In many cases restrictions on religion come from people who are members of the same general religious group, but who are a part of different subgroups. Those suffering restrictions include non-Orthodox Christians in Russia, Greece, and Armenia or Shiite Muslims in Pakistan & Saudi Arabia. These patterns reflect restrictions on minority faith expressions by the majority group in most cases. Atheists and agnostics also suffer persecution, especially in Saudi Arabia.
As you might expect, religious freedom is very compatible with other civil and human rights. As Marshall points out, “ the overlap is not simply a methodological artifact, but rather reflects the simple reality that religious freedom is necessarily a component of civil rights in general.” Religion is not only a transcendent endeavor, but an integral part of the realm of human freedom.
How does religious freedom make gains? In an exemplary reflection by Richard Sieple,** first US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Sieple looks towards strategies that actually “move the human rights needle” in the right direction. He sees only a very selective environment that responds to the use of punishment where religious freedom violations are present. Success however does result when the promotion of religious freedom is coupled with a salient analysis of vested self interest. For example, religious freedom and security can develop as two sides of the same coin if a government sees that it will benefit by a more stable populace when religious freedom is an incentive for loyalty to the government. Also, Sieple found success in providing trade and economic officials with experiences highlighting positive effects of religious pluralism, human freedoms and vital (American) religious culture. He gave an example of officials who made a trade trip that included experiences with religious pluralism. Upon return to their country, they visited prisons where 37 Christians were incarcerated because of faith issues and soon 34 of the 37 were subsequently released.
The inclusion of religious leaders in to the discussion of foreign policy is providing fertile ground for productive discussions and creative thinking towards inspiring and providing this essential freedom to the world. Many of you find yourselves as citizens of the world, in business, medicine, government, trade, missions, ministry and pastoral service. Your voice is needed to reflect and speak about the importance of religious liberty for all humanity. Religious liberty is a critical but fragile freedom. The Council on Foreign Relations has an initiative to engage religious leaders in this and other foreign policy issues. You are invited to join this vital work by contacting Marjorie Branch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Author, Religious Freedom in the World, Rowan & Littlefield 2008
** Founder, Institute for Global Engagement. Author, Religion and Security: The New Nexus in International Relations, Rowan & Littlefield, 2004.