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Survey documents religious freedom abuses


In 1995 the religious right proposed that the United States government establish new procedures to condemn religious intolerance in the world. The original bill contained draconian sanctions that would be mandatory for a president.

The Clinton administration testified diplomatically against the bill, asserting that the State Department through its Bureau on Human Rights was already doing work proposed by the International Religious Freedom Law. But the thunder of the religious right made resistance to their proposal politically impossible.

President Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act Oct. 29, 1998. The first annual 1,000-page report of the new office was issued Sept. 9. It received modest attention in the press. Human rights academics and activists who had followed the rhetoric behind the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act were pleased that the report was not overly political and that it had been modified by the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in which the new office on religion is housed.

The document, which covers 194 countries, cited Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, China, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as the nations that are most repressive of religion.

The information in the first annual report has for the most part been covered in previous releases from the State Department, Amnesty International and other human rights agencies around the world. But the harassment of religious believers in many nations highlighted is so shocking that it should be repeated everywhere.

Contrary to some of the fears of those who opposed the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the report does not call for economic boycotts for violators. It also points out carefully that some of the persecution and discrimination against believers is done for political or ethnic reasons rather than solely because of opposition to a certain religion.

The report also flatly asserts, “Religious freedom includes the right not to believe.” It also makes it clear that “the law does not attempt to impose ‘the American way’ on other nations.”

The report makes it clear that the United States is not involved on behalf of U.S. interests but because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the world’s nations in 1948, affirms in Article 18 that everyone “has the right to freedom, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship or observance.”

The violations of religious freedom in the first official report of the State Department have to be described as appalling. They violate every version of international law as set forth in the several U.N. covenants on human rights. It is encouraging to know that U.S. embassies throughout the world are seeking relief for those who have been victimized because of their religious commitments.

But the questions raised about the wisdom of the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act need to be considered. Does the measure give a centrality and primacy to religious freedom that is not entirely consistent with the hierarchy of internationally recognized human rights?

The right to freedom of press and assembly, the right to economic equality and the rights of women, children and minorities are at the core of the human rights revolution started in 1945 by the creation of the United Nations. Religious liberty is important but it is only one of a group of other important rights all of which are mutually reinforcing. Indeed, the international community of nations has had difficulties through the years deciding the exact contours of how far a nation should be allowed to go in favoring one religion to the disadvantage of another. International law does not expressly condemn the almost exclusive establishment of the Muslim religion in Saudi Arabia.

Hence the new office on religious freedom in the State Department is unique among governments. It grants a special place to religious liberty. That freedom alone has a special ambassador at large. That liberty is the only one for which there is a separate and special report.

The religious fundamentalists who initiated the International Religious Freedom Act intended to convey the idea that the United States more than any other country champions religious freedom.

Some of those who were unenthusiastic about the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act may be less apprehensive now that the first report of the new office of religious freedom has been issued. The report contains important information brought together for the first time. The self-righteousness and the hostility to non-believers that characterized some of the promoters of the International Religious Freedom Act are absent in the State Department report.

Some of those human rights activists who were not enthusiastic about a bill advanced by a coalition of very conservative religious fundamentalists may reconsider their attitude. They may ultimately conclude that a systematic survey on the universal state of religious freedom by the most powerful nation in the world may be salutary for religion and for international human rights.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999