October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day and marks the 22nd anniversary of the passage of the bipartisan International Religious Freedom Act.
It is often been said that the greatest evidence of one’s devotion to religious liberty is in the lengths we will go to defend it for those of another faith. For Americans, it’s more than that: religious liberty is in our DNA. The pursuit of that freedom is what brought the Pilgrims to our shores in the first place and why millions more have sought refuge in the United States for more than 200 years. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, believed so strongly in religious liberty that he authored Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom.
The spirit of that statute would go on to be reflected in the first line of our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Our Founding Fathers saw religious liberty as giving meaning to all of our other freedoms.
In modern times, borrowing the language of the Pilgrims, President Ronald Reagan often spoke of his belief that America should aspire to be a shining city on a hill, an example of liberty for the rest of the world.
For the past two years, I have had the honor of speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. Department of State. This was the first time that the State Department had hosted a ministerial event for two consecutive years on the same topic. With more than 1,000 people from over 130 countries, the second one represented the largest ever human rights gathering at the State Department to date. To ensure continuation, these ministerial gatherings will now be held on an annual basis in different parts of the world.
Why does religious freedom engage? As Reagan understood, what we Americans call our first liberty, is not merely an American value, it’s a universal one. And it is a human right. The right for human beings to worship their Creator, or not, as they see fit, is not about favoring any one faith, or even faith and religion in general, but essentially freedom of conscience. Allowing people to practice whatever religion they choose encourages pluralism and diversity of thought within a society – an essential component to a democracy.
Sadly, around the world, freedom of religion is under great pressure and even in some places, direct attack. More than 80% of the world’s population live in countries with high or severe restrictions on religious freedom.
In China, 11 million Uighur Muslims are brutalized. Many are forced into what can only be described as concentration camps. Additionally, Beijing is using the full force of a surveillance state to strip Uighurs of not just their faith, but of their culture, their individuality and their identity. The Economist recently reported that Uighurs in Xinjiang who simply use the greeting “salaam alaikum” to a loved one on the phone can receive a call from the police.
In Burma, the Rohingya minority are victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing: extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred. More than 750,000 have fled to Bangladesh, and most of those left behind have been forced to live in prison camps.
Since Russia illegally took control of Crimea, the Tatar community has faced ever greater repression and harassment. It is increasingly dangerous for them to practice their culture, speak their language or observe their Muslim faith.
In Northern Iraq, ISIS has committed genocide against Christians and Yazidis and other minorities. ISIS sought to wipe them from the face of the earth, even though they have been a vibrant part of the region’s cultural mosaic for centuries.
In both Europe and the United States, the old scourge of anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly head, and Jews are facing harassment and violence by dark elements.
On a positive note, peacemakers recognize that religious liberty and interfaith dialogue can also be a force for reconciliation. Governments should not pick winners and losers among religions, but neither should they be afraid to engage with faith leaders. Because of their standing within their respective communities, religious leaders often see and note frustration and can give early warning signals. By reaching out to them, we can better reach people. And so, by advocating and supporting religious freedom, we decrease the chances of terrorism and war.
A government by the consent of the people is the only moral form of government. As the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers knew, that begins with religious freedom and freedom of conscience. If we get that right, we have a better chance of getting the rest of our liberties right. And when we advocate for such freedom for others, we show that we can in fact be that “shining city on a hill.”
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.