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Commission Says Religious Freedom is a Universal Human Right - 2003-05-19

Earlier this month the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued its fourth annual report. The Commission raised concerns about religious freedom in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and warned that as the United States works to rebuild these war-torn countries it should not forget the importance of religious freedom. The commissioners made clear that the right to religious expression is a universal human right – not just one to be enjoyed by Americans whose constitution guarantees them that right. In today’s Focus, VOA’s Serena Parker asks what lessons the international community can learn from the American model of religious liberty.

As the United States works to rebuild the shattered countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says one of the key elements to their future success is that freedom of religion, as well as other human rights, be enshrined in their constitutions.

Both countries have experience with religious persecution and discrimination. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime imposed a harsh version of sharia, or Islamic law, on the population. In Iraq, Sunni Muslims held most government positions and persecuted the Shiite Muslim majority for three decades. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship many observers worry that the long persecuted Shiites will now impose their version of Islam on the rest of Iraq – discriminating against the Sunni Muslims and Christians.

Leila Sadat is a professor of law at Washington University in Saint Louis. She is also a commissioner on the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom. She points out that the U.S. government should be mindful of protecting religious freedom in its reconstruction efforts in both countries.

“Afghanistan to some extent may serve as a cautionary tale for what is now occurring in Iraq,” she says. “Because even as attention shifts to Iraq, the United States needs to be careful not to forget that the work in Afghanistan is just beginning. The groundwork is potentially being laid in Afghanistan for a regime that may become almost as repressive as the Taliban was, particularly with regard to religious freedom.”

Afghanistan and Iraq are predominantly Muslim countries. Some Muslim clerics suggest that universal human rights are relative in a Muslim country – an idea that Richard Land disputes. Mr. Land is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Let’s be very clear. This commission’s standard is not the Constitution of the United States. Our standard is the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international instruments,” he says. “So if a country wants to give preference, if the citizens of that country decide they want to give preference to a particular religion, they have the right to decide to do that. What they don’t have the right to do is to say that we will then punish you, discriminate against you, persecute you or kill you if you change from that religion or if you choose to be of another faith and want to express that faith.”

The United States is often held up as a model of religious tolerance, where people of many faiths are free to practice the religion of their choosing. But this has not always been the case. Robert Boston, Assistant Director of Communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says when the U.S. Constitution was drafted more than 200 years ago, the early Americans had little experience with the separation of church and state.

“The United States came to embrace separation of church and state because they had bitter experience without having it,” he says. “You have to remember there was a time in this country – and this is a history that a lot people have forgotten – when a minister could be put in jail for preaching on the street a doctrine that conflicted with what the state held to be orthodox.”

“This isn’t just a policy -- this division of religion and government -- that just sprang up one day out of a vacuum. We saw the difficulties of going the other way – of merging religion and government – and decided to take another different path,” he says.

Because of the United States’ own experience with religious intolerance, Mr. Boston suggests there are some lessons that can be shared with countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, that may be struggling with the issue.

“I think one of the most important things we can do is help other countries understand the need for a division between religion and government. That’s very important. I think there does need to be an understanding around the world that, generally speaking, when you link religion and government in a very serious way – if you have the government imposing the doctrines of religion onto people or, worse yet, enforcing an interpretation of a holy book - that usually the result of that is tyranny and oppression.”

There is a good reason that Americans and many other peoples place such a high value on religious liberty says Joseph Loconte, a scholar on religion and society at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

“It’s from that first freedom – freedom of conscience, freedom of religion – it’s from that particular liberty from which all the other liberties flow,” he says. “In other words, the right to conscience informs a free press, it informs the right of association, and it informs the idea of petitioning the government. That realm of conscience informs all these other freedoms. That’s why it’s the first freedom. That’s why it has that prior status in the First Amendment [to the United States Constitution].”

Mr. Loconte says the U.S. government would do well to stress this message to the Iraqis and Afghanis as they struggle to recreate a civil society.

“What we’re facing right now in a post-war Afghanistan and in post-war Iraq I think is that it’s going to be crucial to deliver the same message to the leadership of those countries as they hash out their democratic process and hash out their constitutions. Whether they provide for religious liberty as a foundational liberty in those countries is going to determine the level of freedom in both of those nations,” he says.

By choosing to separate religion and government, early Americans laid the groundwork for a vibrant, independent religious community in the United States. Welton Gaddy is the President of the Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the role of faith in civic life. He says the rights set out in the U.S. Constitution have made the United States the most religiously pluralistic nation in the world.

“Religion always flourishes best in an environment of freedom because religion is about freedom of choice, freedom of expression. So our nation reflects in the vitality of its many religions the positive consequences of religious liberty in the [U.S.] Constitution,” he says.

Countries that protect religious freedom are not only more vital but as the Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Felice Gaer notes, they are more stable.

“It is a conviction of the members of this commission that a country that respects freedom of religion - and that includes freedom for all religious minorities – will be a more stable and responsible member of the international community,” she says.

Ms. Gaer says the commission will continue to monitor and report on religious freedom around the world. Although she acknowledges there is much bad news to report, she also sees progress. It’s her hope that next year’s report will detail advances in terms of religious freedom for Iraq and Afghanistan.