Why Religious Freedom?
Why Religious Freedom is a Fundamental Freedom and Universal Human Right:
Religious freedom is pivotal to a free society. Thomas Jefferson and America’s founders called it the “first freedom.” It is enshrined in the first clause of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And it is first in another sense: freedom of thought, conscience and religion is the prerequisite for the exercise of all other basic human rights. In theory and practice, free expression, freedom of press and freedom of
Center Director Nina Shea is introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KA) at press conference upon adoption of the 2002 Sudan Peace Act. In the background from left to right are Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), Rep. Don Payne (D-NJ), Fran Boyle of the Episcopal Mission to Sudan, and Jimmy Mulla of Southern Sudanese Voice for Freedom.
association depend on the prior guarantee of a free conscience. The historical reality is that where religious freedom is denied, so too are other basic human rights.
Religious freedom has two dimensions. It belongs to individuals and also to religious groups. It includes a person’s right to walk down the street wearing a cross, a yarmulke or a headscarf, or not to do so, and to express and live out one’s beliefs in society. It also includes the rights of groups to worship God as they wish in community, to run schools, hospitals and other institutions, to publish and possess sacred literature, and order their internal affairs.
In recent decades, the institutional
dimension of religious freedom has proved crucial in opening up social space and offering essential political protection for reformers in repressive societies as diverse as Poland, Chile, the Philippines and South Africa. Today, we see a new generation of dissidents claiming their individual
rights to religious freedom – including courageous Iranian and Saudi reformers who are being imprisoned and silenced for crimes of “blasphemy” when they dissent from their governments’ policies.
The fundamental nature of religious freedom found worldwide acceptance in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, it was above all the horror of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jewish people, a religious genocide as well as an ethnic one, that stirred support for it. In its preamble, the Declaration states that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world." It is precisely this shared recognition of human dignity as the basis for religious freedom – and all human rights – that enables practical collaboration between believers of various faiths or no faith, despite irreconcilable differences regarding the ultimate source of human dignity.
Religious freedom is as salient today as it was half a century ago.
State-sponsored religious persecution – going far beyond even pervasive discrimination and bigotry –
occurs today under three types of regimes: the remaining officially atheistic communist governments, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam; repressive Islamist states, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan; and nationalist authoritarian states, such as Burma and Eritrea. These are the countries that have been officially designated by the U.S. State Department as ''countries of particular concern'' for their egregious, systematic, and continuing violations of religious freedom. In such countries only those who uphold government-approved orthodoxies—religious or secular—are tolerated. Others risk torture, imprisonment, and even death.
Despite its central importance historically, politically and socially, the issue of religious freedom has been the most neglected human right in U.S. foreign policy. Because of either lack of interest or an understanding of religion's importance to most of the world's people, America's foreign policy establishment has typically failed to defend religious freedom as a principle or speak out on behalf of beleaguered believers. This is one reason why, for example, U.S. intelligence turned down a 1978 proposal to study the role of religion in Iran, calling it ''mere sociology''; a year later, the Islamic revolution in Tehran caught the United States unaware.
In 1998, the U.S. Congress sought to correct this failure by passing overwhelmingly the International Religious Freedom Act or IRFA. One of its main purposes is to make the issue of religious freedom an integral part of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, in order to combat a ''renewed and, in many cases, increasing assault in many countries around the world'' against religious freedom. The promotion and protection of religious freedom abroad is now official U.S. policy.
Religious freedom faces hard new challenges. Recent decades have seen the rise of extreme interpretations of Islamic rule that are virulently intolerant of other traditions within Islam, as well as of non-Muslims. Many in our policy world still find religious freedom too ''sensitive'' to raise. But since 9/11, the link between our own security and freedom, between our national interests and our ideals, has never been clearer. Winning the War on Terror turns on the battle of ideas and at its heart is the principle of religious freedom.