WASHINGTON(November 16, 2005) – The cause of religious liberty must be a fundamental priority of U.S. foreign policy, said a bishop representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Capitol Hill yesterday.
"From the perspective of Catholic teaching, religious freedom is the first of our freedoms," said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces (NM) Tuesday in testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations. "Religious freedom covers a broad range of vital activities, from freedom of worship to freedom of conscience, from the right to establish schools and charities to the right to participate in and seek to influence public affairs."
Bishop Ramirez, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, testified as a member of the USCCB's International Policy Committee.
He described two "broad trends," or "major challenges," that he suggested "deserve greater attention," before highlighting a few specific concerns in individual countries where religious liberty is restricted.
The first challenge Bishop Ramirez described is the relationship between governments and elected officials and "the proper place of religion in public life."
"While the state and religion clearly differ in their roles, they share a common goal of building up the common good for the benefit of the entire society," he said. "If the United States is to be a leader in supporting religious freedom, we must acknowledge that our nation's treatment of religious freedom impacts the credibility of U.S. leadership as our nation seeks to influence other peoples and countries that look to us as an example."
The second concern, "perhaps the most significant challenge to religious freedom," he described is the relationship between Christianity and Islam.
"This challenge requires careful and deep reflection, respectful dialogue and candid discussion," he said.
"Authentic dialogue cannot be just vague expressions of good will, empty of a search for truth and unity," Bishop Ramirez told the subcommittee. "Genuine interreligious dialogue can only be a force to heal divisions if dialogue safeguards and respects the truth in each religion and culture."
He said the USCCB supports the view of political leaders who have declared that the struggle against terrorism is not a war against Islam.
In responding to the State Department's release last week of a status report on religious freedom around the world, Bishop Ramirez highlighted USCCB concerns in several countries:
* Iraq. While commending Iraqi efforts to establish a stable democracy for themselves, Bishop Ramirez expressed concerns about provisions in the newly approved Iraqi constitution. "Even though the constitution promotes the concept of religious freedom, some provisions circumscribe religious liberty by not allowing any law to contradict the principles of Islam," he said.
* Israel. The 1993 Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See was a welcome development, but the failure to conclude negotiations on economic and other issues of importance to the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community in the Holy land is a concern. "We believe the issues between the government of Israel and the Holy See are of great importance for religious liberty, not only for the Catholic Church but for the vitality of all Christian communities within Israel."
* People's Republic of China. State-approved and state-controlled religions in China appear to be freer today that in recent years, but "control over the everyday life of the Church, less intrusive in some places than in others, still represents an unwarranted interference of the State in the life of the Church," Bishop Ramirez said.
* India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. "Shameful" attacks on the Christian minority in these countries indicates "that much more can be done to insist that each of these states act with greater conformity with international law and greater respect for religious rights."
* Burma. The on-going denial of fundamental human rights in Burma merits "consistent and active monitoring," but the Catholic Church is opposed to economic sanctions.
* Cuba. Parents are unable to choose alternatives to state schools, Catholic dioceses continue to be denied access to major media, religious workers from abroad continue to be denied visas, and state security agents have increasingly attended Masses "with the evident purpose of discouraging any dissident behavior," Bishop Ramirez said. However, the U.S. bishops remain steadfast in their opposition to the economic embargo against Cuba as counter productive.
* Russian Federation. "While the Catholic Church has seen some improvements in the last two years, the overall situation of human rights remains tenuous, uncertain, and in some was is deteriorating," Bishop Ramirez said.
NOTE: The full text of Bishop Ramirez's testimony is available on the Web at: