Without religious freedom, there will be no lasting peace

December 11, 2014

By Charles C. Haynes

     On December 10, 1948, the nations of the world gathered at the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Rights, an American-inspired proclamation that launched the modern human rights movement.

     Voting in the shadow of the Holocaust, religious freedom was prominent among the inalienable rights that the world agreed must be guarded for all people.

     According to Article 18 of the Declaration, "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, 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 private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

     Sixty-six years later, however, 5.8 billion people — 76% of the world's population — live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religious freedom, an estimate based on the Pew Research Center's most recent study of religious hostilities and oppression across the world.

     The abject failure of governments to uphold the Universal Declaration has had dire consequences in the 21st century. It is no exaggeration to say that denial of religious freedom is today a leading cause of repression, division and conflict across the world.

     Consider that in recent weeks alone:

  • The Chinese government banned any practice of religion in state institutions, public schools, and businesses in the Xinjiang region in an attempt to further repress the Uyghur Muslim population.
  • A Christian couple in Pakistan's Punjab province was lynched and another man hacked to death by a policeman for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam. Blasphemy is a capital crime in Pakistan — and villagers often take matters into their own hands.
  • Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar fled by the thousands in the wake of new requirements by the government designed to force the Rohingya out of the country. Many Rohingya are already confined to concentration camps and are, in the words of one aid worker, "treated like animals."
  • The French Interior Minister announced that anti-Semitic threats and incidents in France have more than doubled this year. Feeling frightened and unsafe, thousands of Jews are leaving the country.

     From the burning of churches and mosques in East Africa countries to the destruction of ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria to the imprisonment of Baha'i leaders in Iran, much of the world's population suffers from religious persecution, extremism and hatred.

     That's why the United States must move religious freedom from the margins of foreign policy to the center of our relationships with other nations, including strategic allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — two of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.

     American advocacy of religious freedom is not only a moral obligation; it is in our national security interest. Where religious freedom is denied, religious division, extremism and conflict flourish.

     Without religious freedom, there will be no lasting peace.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: chaynes@newseum.org

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