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Foundations and Practical Expressions of Freedom of Religion and Belief

Recently I spoke on a panel at a conference in Rome with attendees from over 20 countries. The conference looked at Catholic approaches to a number of issues, including religious freedom – the topic on which I spoke.

Below is the presentation I made to the assembly. I’d be interested in your thoughts and perspectives on my paper.

Foundations and Practical Expressions of Freedom of Religion and Belief
By Joseph K. Grieboski
Founder and Chairman of the Board
THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen. It is indeed a great honor and pleasure to be with you today.

I used to joke that the very idea of my discussing Catholic theology caused bishops to quake in their mitres; my now being invited by a Prince of the Church to do so in a forum such as this is either a great irony or an even greater penance.

Religious freedom is a principal reason for the success of the American republic. It is the “first freedom” of the Bill of Rights, the first sixteen words of which – by guaranteeing free exercise and banning establishment – were designed to encourage the religious enterprise.

The American first amendment is based on the conviction that believers can and will do good things for themselves, their co-religionists, and their country, and that they should be encouraged to do so. Most important, however, the first amendment also protects the rights of those who choose not to believe. The American Founding Fathers did not see religion as a “private matter” with no relationship to society or government. Rather, they saw religion and religious people as the cornerstone of the American democracy and representative of the vitality of a nation.

Religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. It is, therefore, a liberty that should not be confined to the private sphere only. The famous American clergyman John Witherspoon – the only cleric to sign the Declaration of Independence – stated in a May 1776 sermon what may be considered a philosophy of religious purpose in America: “It is in the man of piety and inward principle, that we may expect to find the uncorrupted patriot, the useful citizen, and the invincible soldier. God grant that in America true religion and civil liberty may be inseparable and that the unjust attempts to destroy the one, may in the issue tend to the support and establishment of both.”

Religions play an integral role in contemporary global affairs and are increasingly being perceived with a sense of urgency. Open fora bringing together representatives of religious groups to discuss the centrality of the role of religion take a great importance. Good things happen in history when the will of believing people is channeled and directed towards the ideals of freedom, justice, and equality for all.

Human rights and religious freedom need to be the basis of a new political ideology of harmony and mutual understanding which needs to take shape and become the energizing concept for public action in this twenty-first century. This forum, for example, can provide for the elaboration of such a concept, one tempered through renewed debates and the continuous exchange of ideas.

In Central Asia, China, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and elsewhere, the actions of religious leaders and institutions serve to empower radicals by encouraging threatening behavior. For this reason, incidentally, it is vitally important that governments around the world nurture environments of free expression so that moderate views may predominate.

Where freedom of religion and belief is protected by governments, promoted by religious believers and institutions, and valued by citizens, religion-based violence, repression, and terrorism will not take root. In this sense, freedom of religion is an antidote to terrorism, especially religion-based terrorism, because it encourages a theological and political awareness of the need to accept the “other.” To discriminate against religious beliefs, or to discredit religious practice, is exclusion contrary to respect for fundamental human dignity that will eventually destabilize society by creating a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition, and suspicion not conducive to social peace.

A religion’s recognition of the necessity of freedom of religion and belief indicates the theological centrality that every individual has value and worth. In truth, religious freedom is at the heart of the basic beliefs and theologies of every major global faith.

For a body of faith to be defined as a religion – rather than as a belief system or spiritual system – it holds a monopoly on Truth and Salvation. As the Roman Catholic Church has historically stated, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus – “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” If a religion believes – as they all do – that Truth exists, they must also recognize that in order to grasp that Truth, an individual must be free to pursue it. Without the theological freedom to pursue Truth according to the dictates of one’s heart, mind, and conscience, an individual is the victim of religious tyranny and not of true religious devotion or fervor.

All men are bound to seek the Truth, especially in what concerns God and His Mandate to Man, and to embrace the Truth they come to know. It is upon the human conscience that the obligations fall and exert their binding force. The Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power.

Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.

The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be 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 his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The right to religious freedom, as enunciated by the Second Vatican Council, “has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the Truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of Truth.

However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

Freedom of religion is arguably the right most intimately connected to human dignity. Human beings are characterized by the capacity to reason, by a conscience formed through intellect and experience, and by the power to act on reason and conscience. As such, every person is “hard wired” with a thirst to know the truth about the origin, nature, purpose and destiny of mankind.

Accordingly, to protect religious freedom is to protect the right to seek that truth, and the right peacefully to live and worship in accord with it, both individually and in community with others. (Religious freedom also protects those who believe the search for truth, and the moral imperatives that ensue, involves not only rights but also binding obligations.) Religious freedom goes to the core of what it means to be human and what it means to say (as does, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) that human beings possess an intrinsic and inviolable dignity.

A guarantee of religious freedom also supports the other fundamental rights necessary to all human persons; because it is grounded in the universal dignity of the human person, religious freedom encourages other related rights. A government that denies the right to freedom of religion and belief is far more likely to deny other rights central to human dignity, such as freedom from torture or murder. The reverse is also true. Freedom of religion and belief is also closely connected to other civil and political rights necessary to democracy.

Without freedom of conscience, there is no freedom of speech, as believers cannot communicate among themselves about their most fundamental beliefs; there is no freedom of assembly, as like-minded believers cannot meet to share their beliefs and worship their Creator; and there is no freedom of the press, as believers cannot print and share their beliefs with others. Religious individuals and groups need and deserve freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to be secure in their homes from unwarranted government intrusion.

In many countries with religious minorities, the most that is thought to be achievable is a commitment to religious tolerance. True religious freedom, however, is more than mere tolerance. It constitutes an embracing of universal human dignity because of – rather than in spite of – one’s religious convictions.

The great project of the 21st century is to encourage and empower religious communities – especially Muslims – who have this view, i.e., that adapting to non-Muslim religions within Islamic societies is not a compromise of Islam but a deepening and clarifying of it. Islam wields a sword. Shall it be only the sword that thrusts outward to cut off the ears of its perceived enemies, or the sword that pierces inward to cut out that which tears at the truth of Islam?

The great tragedy is that the torch of sacrifice and truth in Islam – and I dare say all faiths – has been snatched from the hands of those who should bear it aloft, and is instead carried high by the enemies of truth and freedom. The so-to-say “fires of apostolic zeal” alive and well in all faiths has been stolen from the altars of God and now burn as an inferno in those who grind the altars into dust. We are in fact destined for another war, but not the clash of civilizations to which is so often incorrectly referred. We are destined for a war against false freedoms – civil and religious – that endanger our true and divine freedom.

This cannot, however, be limited exclusively to Islam, as other religious traditions are susceptible to the kinds of intolerance that lead to violence. We see this, for example, in the recent rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and the growing religious tensions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Promoting freedom of religion and belief globally is vital to the national security of each and every state in the world, as well as to international security, in two ways. First, it promotes democracy and therefore strengthens internal and regional stability, and encourages economic prosperity. Second, it helps fight the war on religion-based terrorism. I am not aware of a single regime in the world that both respects religious freedom and poses a security threat to the U.S. or any other state.

It is indeed a fine and fragile balance that needs to be maintained between a state’s secular nature and the positive role of believers in public life. To avoid such a twist is as necessary as it is to prevent the misuse of the concept of freedom. This corresponds, among other things, to the demands of a healthy pluralism and contributes to the building up of authentic democracy.

As Pope John Paul II stated, “When States are disciplined and balanced in the expression of their secular nature, dialogue between the different social sectors is fostered and, consequently, transparent and frequent cooperation between civil and religious society is promoted, which benefits the common good.”

A systematic and systemic discrimination and persecution of any minority, particularly a religious minority, create security, economic, and social consequences for itself, its neighbors, and the international community. The estrangement of one sector of a state’s population by the government or by another segment of the population with the government’s active or passive support establishes resentment and alienation among those groups.

Religion-based discrimination and persecution by a government, actively or passively, serve to create a security dilemma for said state among its neighbors, and may escalate to raise the attention of other interested states and international organizations.

Social and political tensions and conflicts created by feelings of inadequacy potentially lead to coercive measures and imposition of tougher laws. One such law is now in place in France, and is under consideration in Germany, Belgium, and other states as well. There could be no real power in laws that so many religious believers will resent or will try to circumvent. Alienating people and making them feel unwelcome is not the solution. The government has a responsibility for the common good, social peace and coexistence within the state. Consequently, it has the duty and responsibility to guarantee these rights and benefits by respecting pluralism.

Such feelings of isolation, separation, and inadequacy – created by inequitable social, economic, educational and other standards based solely on differences in religion – in addition to actual incidents of state-sponsored or supported persecution, are cause for entire migrations of targeted peoples. Such migrations create internal displacement and potential refugee issues for neighboring states.

Mass movements of populations across borders potentially become a security threat to states neighboring a religiously repressive state. This can grow to be a true security dilemma if the religiously repressive regime chooses to use force against religious minorities. While the situation in North Korea is horrific all the way around, the treatment of North Korean refugees by Chinese authorities provides an adequate example of concern for such an issue.

The security dilemma caused by a lack of religious freedom is amplified when religious repression and lack of religious freedom serve as an impetus for acts of violence and even terrorism by targeted religious minorities. These acts against the government are not and can never be justified, but may seem to the perpetrators as the only recourse to a regime that represses their fundamental rights. Denial of the fundamental right of religious freedom can indeed directly impact the state’s own security. The respect of every expression of religious freedom is, therefore, an effective means for guaranteeing security and stability within a state.

Rejection of religious freedom also places a prodigious – and perhaps even fatal – obstacle in the way of successful democratic governance, a point closely related to the internal stability and sustainability of a given nation. The danger is greatest with new and aspiring democracies, but cannot be ignored in established polities. For example, the continued political success of India – the world’s largest democracy – is contingent in part on overcoming the threat posed by Hindu extremists to that country’s tradition (if 50 years can make a tradition) of religious tolerance. Nor can the problem of Kashmir be treated exclusively (by India, Pakistan, or the United States) as a politico-strategic issue, without taking into account the need to address the crucial matter of Hindu-Muslim intolerance.

In new and aspiring democracies, the stakes are even higher. We are witnessing a struggle over the value of religious freedom today in Afghanistan and many of the post-Soviet nations of Central Asia. Each is lurching at one speed or another in the general direction of democracy, but all are in danger of assuming that democracy amounts to little more than a sterile proceduralism of party organization and secret ballots. In fact, as long experience in the West has shown (and, indeed, may need to be relearned in Western Europe), democracy requires a moral framework of universal principles in which it can operate. If that framework is an intolerant interpretation of Islam, democracy will come aborning just as surely as it will flounder from a framework of secular intolerance.

It is very important to emphasize that freedom of religion must not be confused with freedom from religion. A policy of secularism should not be promoted in any way as a cover for unintentional intolerance and atheism as a state policy.

Moreover, protecting religious freedom presents a foundational challenge to governments that, for whatever reason, seek to ally with a particular religious tradition in order to suppress others.

Overcoming this problem, as much as any economic, ethnic or political factor, will determine the success or failure of Russian democracy, as Russian leaders struggle with the temptation to suppress non-Orthodox religious minorities in seeking the political support of the Russian Orthodox Church. The same dilemma assails leaders in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and most other European countries that languished under the Communist thumb during the Soviet period.

Other “lingering-Communist” countries, such as China and Vietnam, in which no particular religious tradition underpins culture, view with alarm the growth of religious observance that appears to attend and hasten the demise of Communist institutions. The result is often harsh repression as such governments try to manage and control religious fervor and even alter faith traditions perceived as “foreign” and therefore threatening, such as Roman Catholicism in China. Both China and Vietnam have used the heightened international (and especially American) concern over terrorism to justify attacks on “splittists” and other erstwhile security threats such as Protestants in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, the Buddhists of Tibet, and Uighur Muslims in Northwest China.

In today’s world, where terrorism is the new evil empire and religious extremism the threatening political ideology, these words of President Ronald Reagan hold as true as they did when he spoke them in his March 8, 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals: “The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith…the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material but spiritual, and because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.”

We must also be vigilantly aware that freedom of religion and belief does not equate to religious relativism nor does it equate to religious protectionism.

Religious liberty cannot be confused with the interpretation that all faiths are the same and equal in their theological or spiritual substance. In fact, it means nothing of the sort. The Roman Catholic Church in a legal context of religious liberty (what I refer to as the “Supermarket of Faith”) must continue to teach the Truth of Salvation through Christ and the Church in its schools, homilies, media, and other social fora. Religious liberty grants legal equality to all faiths, not spiritual equality, and in so doing not only permits but also encourages faiths to exercise freely, grow ardently, and demonstrate publicly the Truth of their teachings.

At the same time, we must be aware and vigilant that freedom of religion not be used as a tool of religious or ideological protectionism. Religious liberty is not a means by which to advance a particular ideological worldview. It is a basic and fundamental human right that transcends right or left; that transcends liberal or conservative; that transcends political boundaries. Religious liberty is the most basic right of all peoples and cannot be linked in one way or another with a particular political or religious ideology for fear of undermining that right.

Further, religious liberty does not belong to a particular faith. After the unanimous passage by the United States Congress of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998, the law was interpreted both at home and abroad as a tool of Evangelical proselytization put in place to protect American Evangelical missionaries around the globe. While that was not the intent of the authors of the bill, neither the Clinton, Bush, nor Obama Administrations have done much to counter that worldview. Unfortunately, neither have many Members of Congress.

The status of Hare Krishnas in Kazakhstan, Ahmadis in Pakistan and Zoroastrians in Iran are just as important as the status of Evangelicals in each of those countries. Parliamentarians must address religious discrimination and persecution of all faith communities equally and not be seen as a promoter or supporter of one religious or faith community over another. Furthermore, religious and faith minorities include non-traditional religious communities such as the Unification Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Sikhs, and many others who are often left out of the usual religious liberty protection mechanisms because their theologies are different or unusual to the average onlooker. However, it is still our duty to promote their rights, while not promoting their beliefs.

If religious liberty is even perceived to be the bastion of one faith or another, then the rights of all faiths are undermined. Elected members of parliament have at their disposals tremendous capacity to advance this fundamental right both at home and abroad. However, parliamentarians must be broad, open, and inclusive in their support of religious liberty and not target states or foreign actors for perceived violations against particular groups. To do so destroys the credibility of religious liberty as an international legal issue, undermines the parliamentarian’s credibility as an advocate for religious freedom, and twists religious liberty into a system of religious protectionism not dissimilar from the approach of the Saudis.

Because of the wide variety of differences in culture, history, belief, and governance globally, my organization, THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy, does not apply a cookie-cutter approach to the religious freedom situation in a country. Our methodology is to work directly with those affecting and affected by potential or actual discrimination and persecution. I think it is very important to mention here that one will never hear representatives of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy discuss the First Amendment of the American Constitution as a model for free exercise and freedom of religion in another state. In spite of the lofty ideals inscribed in the First Amendment and the unwavering support of THE INSTITUTE for its application, it does not and cannot be applied in toto across the board to other states and in all historic circumstances. Unfortunately, this is a grave misunderstanding applied by some in the religious freedom community in the United States.

As this is a conference of elected parliamentarians, I would like to offer some suggestions of interactions to assist parliamentarian in their advocacy and promotion of religious liberty. NGOs, like THE INSTITUTE and Jubilee Campaign, are necessary and appropriate partners for parliaments.

Very often, NGOs consider themselves the “consciences” of state structures, holding state institutions to a standard of ethical and moral behavior in one arena or the other. Many examples exist globally of the necessity of religious freedom organizations such as THE INSTITUTE to place itself in an oppositional stance to government structures or policies in one state or region or another. THE INSTITUTE has found itself in serious opposition to government decrees in Belarus, India, Pakistan, France, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, China, Sudan, and several other states. However, we do not believe that opposition is enemy. Human rights and religious freedom violations have been ongoing in, for example, Sudan and China at incomprehensible levels for many years. While THE INSTITUTE has publicly opposed government policies in these states that have directly or indirectly led to the abuses of fundamental freedoms and rights, we have also explored and engaged in dialogue with these states and their institutions.

Engagement does not mean endorsement. I have always found that more can be achieved by sitting in the castle and engaging, than standing outside and firing arrows blankly against the wall. Political positioning on fundamental rights achieves nothing but grandstanding. Engagement leads to solutions.

One highly successful program of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy that has permitted such engagement is the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom. Every two years THE INSTITUTE brings together delegations of members of national and supranational parliaments to discuss human rights and religious freedom from the shared background and perspective of parliamentarians. The Interparliamentary Conference, of which THE INSTITUTE serves as secretariat, permits lawmakers from around the globe to communicate with one another, with NGOs, and with religious leaders and groups, in order to further the understanding and role of religious freedom from the legislative standpoint. Such engagement permits legislators to understand more directly and fully the impact that their decisions on religious expression and practice have globally.

Further, the involvement of NGOs and religious communities with the parliamentarians, and the unique networking established through THE INSTITUTE as secretariat, permits legislators, and consequently parliaments, to become actively involved in advancing and developing religious freedom not only in their own respective states, but also in other states around the globe. The Interparliamentary Conference as a body has effected positive change in many countries around the globe thanks to this approach. The Interparliamentary Conference is also an example of another step necessary for NGOs to take in the struggle to advance religious freedom globally: innovation.

Religious freedom is not a new political concept; it has developed and broadened considerably since the 1700s. Today, however, religious freedom is often sidelined as what many American policymakers call a “soft issue,” and not given appropriate attention by policymakers despite the importance it plays in so many arenas. Religious freedom advocates must constantly compete with other issues of the day to gain resources, attention, and influence to remain effective and keep the issue alive and before policymakers and the general public. Innovation in thinking, operation, approach, and marketing of the issue of religious freedom is necessary to reach the largest number possible of religious leaders, policymakers, media, and the general public.

While this may seem to be a Madison Avenue approach to a fundamental issue, such innovation and creativeness in approach and networking also wields tremendous results in recruiting new segments of the population into knowledge about religious freedom if not involvement in the cause itself. Beyond the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom, THE INSTITUTE has developed several other programs to engage governments, business leaders, educational institutions and others in the cause of advancing freedom of faith.

The opportunity presented by this gathering offers outstanding potential to advancing the basic and fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief. From protecting religious liberty in your own states to helping to promote it in others, parliamentarians operating in unison and cooperation will guarantee the sustainable and ongoing defense of fundamental rights.

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