On Religious Freedom Day, stand for the persecuted abroad (COMMENTARY)

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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body.

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The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 as an independent, bipartisan body.

(RNS) On Saturday (Jan. 16), our nation will observe National Religious Freedom Day. This day commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom back in 1786.

As Jefferson’s statute proclaimed, religious freedom is among the “natural rights of mankind.” Yet to this day, billions of people abroad routinely are denied this liberty. From forbidding the construction of places of worship to perpetrating mass torture and murder, abusers continue to operate with impunity.

For both humanitarian and practical reasons, the United States must stand with the persecuted and weave the concern to protect religious freedom more tightly into U.S. foreign policy.

To these ends, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that the State Department designate as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, those nations the commission has found to be the world’s most severe abusers. Although meant to be an annual designation, the State Department last designated CPCs in July 2014. So we urge swift action.

Among State Department-designated CPC nations, China and North Korea exemplify secular tyrannies that suppress religious groups across the board. Others, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, enthrone one religion or religious interpretation while often brutalizing those embracing alternatives, from dissenting Muslims to Christians to Baha’is.

Pakistan is an example of an electoral democracy that both perpetrates and tolerates religious freedom violations. More Pakistanis are on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy than anywhere else. The government’s enforcement of blasphemy statutes, in turn, emboldens extremists to assault perceived transgressors. From the Pakistani Taliban to individual vigilantes, these attackers victimize religious minorities, from Shia to Christians, Hindus to Ahmadis, with impunity and rarely are brought to justice.

Pakistan is one of several nations experiencing a dramatic rise in violent religious extremist groups committing mass violence based on religion. In some of these countries, such behavior meets the legal criteria for genocide.

Among the most horrifying examples are in Syria and Iraq, where the so-called Islamic State has unleashed waves of terror against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia, as well as Sunnis who oppose its extremist views. In Syria, other extremist groups replicate those horrors.

Yazidis and Christians have borne the brunt of the Islamic State’s depredations and for a chilling reason. The summary executions, rape, sexual enslavement, abducted children, destroyed houses of worship, and forced conversions all are part of a systematic effort to erase their presence from the Middle East.

Beyond the Middle East, Buddhist extremists in Burma have ferociously assaulted Rohingya Muslims, a religious and ethnic minority that has long suffered discrimination and persecution.

In the Central African Republic, an explosion in strife between Christian and Muslim militias has destroyed nearly every mosque in the country.

And in Nigeria, Boko Haram continues to attack both Christians and many Muslims who oppose them. From mass murders at churches and mosques to mass kidnappings of children from schools, Boko Haram has cut a wide path of terror across vast swaths of Nigeria.

We should care deeply about this surge in religious freedom abuses and other human rights violations for humanitarian reasons and because of the tremendous instability these abuses unleash.

But there is still another reason to prioritize religious freedom. In 2014, the Latin Rite archbishop of Baghdad said: “I do not think Europe will be calm. This … does not stop at territorial boundaries.”  His words proved tragically prophetic, as the same forces of violent religious extremism plaguing his own country struck a kosher supermarket and a satirical magazine in Paris a year ago. The supermarket victims were murdered simply because they were Jews and the victims of the assault on the newspaper were killed because their attackers considered them as blasphemers deserving punishment.

Thus, standing for the persecuted is not just a moral imperative; it is a practical necessity for any country seeking to enhance stability and protect its security and that of its citizens.

As we celebrate National Religious Freedom Day, let us honor our own heritage by reaffirming religious freedom as a vital component in our relations with the rest of the world.

(Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Thomas J. Reese is a USCIRF commissioner.)

  • G Key

    It’s not the belief system, it’s what you do with it.

    Some people of a given faith think it’s a religious virtue to mistreat other-believers. Other people of that same religion are appalled by the very idea. Still others think such abuse is permitted but not blessed. Many, maybe most, think religious cruelty is an ancient, primitive value that belongs in the past and is unthinkable today — despite what their ancient scriptures still say. A few merciful believers may even think that certain parts of their ancient scriptures — such as the rarely discussed and generally ignored exhortations to cruelty traditionally attributed to the God of Abraham in Scriptural passages such as Joshua 6-8, Matthew 7 & 10, Luke 10, and Revelation 20 — should be edited/updated for the sake of human decency.

    What do you believe?

  • G Key

    It’s important to recognize that a similar range of thoughts and values exist in non-Abrahamic faiths — and in the nonreligious community as well. Regardless of belief or nonbelief, some people fight for Equality, Respect, and Compassion, others fight for Inequality, Trespass, and Cruelty, and still others stand by and claim to be neutral.

    Personally, I believe that it is wholly wrongful, and holistically harmful, for any spiritual/existential belief system or believer to disrespect another’s boundaries. I believe that it is blasphemous for any shepherd or sheep to claim rights to another’s blessed pasture. And I believe that such ungodly trespass leads to inhuman cruelty.

    Now that humans can finally communicate with each other all over the world, isn’t it about time we discussed how we treat each other?

  • Junebug

    YES, G KEY it is time we discussed how we treat each other. Even if all do not agree – we should “live & let live”. And that is happening among some leaders and believers. But that may never happen among the general public as long as fundamentalists insist their God and their interpretation of their holy book is the only authentic truth. I refer here to all global faiths and peoples. We must keep communication lines open and keep trying.

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  • “..Boko Haram continues to attack Christians and many Muslims who oppose them. Mass murders at churches and mosques to mass kidnappings…”

    These crimes happen at the direction of Religion:
    “Kill the Infidel” – Allah
    “Execute them” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Such ‘freedoms’ must be forbidden!

    The genius of American Religious Freedom is in its ATHEIST LAW:
    “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion nor prohibit the free exercise thereof” – US Constitution

    America is still the only country with a Constitutional law to protect the Non-Religious as well as the Religious.

    It is foolish and dangerous to blindly enshrine ‘religious freedom’ unless it ensures protection FROM religion also.

    Religions are flame throwers.
    “Religious Freedom” without checks and balances for Atheists
    is an invitation to conflagration and mass murder!

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  • On religious freedom day, USCIRF,&IRF, must stop double-dealing.
    Here is a sample from USCIRF report:-
    1)Event: Terrorist Attack at Bodhgaya India
    USCIRF portrayal: “NIA arrested Hindu priest.Protest ensued &..Priest released.”
    Fact: India Mujahideens arrested.
    2) Event: AntiTerror Op. BatlaHouse, Delhi
    USCIRF portrayal: “2 unarmed youth shot by police.”
    Fact: 2 terrorist&1 police officer died.Court awarded life term to arrested Indian Mujahideen terrorist found guilty of bombing new delhi and killing 17 civilians.
    3) Event: In Sept 2014, India Police arrested a hindu youth named Sunil Rajput whose Facebook post provoked Muslim riots injuring dozens. He was booked under hate speech law & bail was denied.
    USCIRF stmt: Event is a violation of Muslim religious freedom.
    4) Event: In Sept 2015 newspaper interview, A Muslim Cleric calls Hindu festival demon worship. Police arrested the Cleric.
    IRF stmt: Event is a violation of Muslim religious freedom & Cleric’s…

  • You are absolutely correct. USCIRF, in it’s current form, is an assault on separation of church and state. Those who don’t believe in equality will not protect freedom of others. Some past/present commissioners do not believe in equality of religion, race, gender or marriage.

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Life is sacred. Respecting the dignity of the other is our calling.

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  • Jonatan Jurado

    Problem with religion is people believe they own the “truth” without any evidence, but their emotions.
    Religion should (must) disappear.

  • Jack

    ReformUSCIRF, reread what you just wrote regarding #4.

    Are you saying it should be a criminal offense to insult other people’s religion? That makes you an enemy not only of freedom of religion, but freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

    So congratulations — you’ve just embraced the trifecta of tyranny. If you’re so insecure of your own religion that you need to shield it from all criticism by bully-boy tactics, maybe you should ask yourself whether you truly believe what you say you believe.

  • Jack

    Jonatan, maybe ignorant and bigoted thinking like your own should “disappear.”

    The difference is that those of us who believe in freedom and democracy are confident that in a free market place of ideas, you’re going to get your butt kicked because your biases and bigotry won’t survive the disinfecting sunlight of facts and logic, reality and truth.

  • Jack

    ReformUSCIRF sounds awfully scared that his own religion won’t be able to compete against other beliefs and ideas.

    Sorry, but if your beliefs have to be coddled and protected from the real world and real scrutiny, maybe they’re not as well-grounded in reality as you think. Maybe you only believe them because your parents do. That’s a pretty lame and weak grounds for belief in anything.

  • Jack

    Max evidently doesn’t understand that freedom of religion includes the right not to believe as well as the right to believe. That means atheists like himself have exactly the same rights as theists and agnostics. To be a human being is to have such rights.

  • God and His ways have never been popular. Abraham was called out of paganism to serve the living God. God brought about the nation of Israel through His descendants. While some served the Lord faithfully many rejected the God of Abraham and persecuted the prophets which God had sent to them. God then sent His own Son from heaven to this earth and what happened? Just as the prophets were persecuted, so was the Son of God to the point of death on the cross. This is not merely a Jewish matter to be sure as it was the Romans (gentiles) who carried out the crucifixion. So that we can see clearly that the world in general is hostile towards God. How sad. But, this all happened for a reason. God sent Jesus, knowing that He would be crucified, in order to atone for our sins. Praise God. All who come to God the Father, through Jesus Christ His Son will be forgiven of their sins and have peace with God and everlasting life. God Bless