WASHINGTON (March 16, 2006)—In Congressional testimony, the Chairman of the Committee on International Policy, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called for positive efforts to understand and engage Islam and Muslim leaders and to promote religious freedom for Christians in some countries with Muslim majorities.
"Constructive and respectful dialogue with Islam is imperative in today's world," said Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando. "Rather than deploring a clash of cultures, we need to foster cultures of dialogue and respect as keys to justice and peace."
Bishop Wenski testified (March 16) before the House International Committee, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations. The hearing was devoted to the 2005 Human Rights Report of the U.S. Department of State.
At the request of the subcommittee, the Bishop addressed religious freedom and the status of Christians in a number of Islamic countries. He offered recommendations for U.S. policies to improve religious freedom in countries with Muslim majorities.
"This focus, which is both timely and relevant, should not be interpreted as suggesting that these are the principal or only countries in which there are serious concerns for religious freedom or that other religious minorities that are not Christian do not suffer from religious discrimination," Bishop Wenski said.
Some of the most significant challenges for religious freedom and forging constructive roles for religion in world affairs are developing relationships between Christians and Muslims, Bishop Wenski stated. "The violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and several conflicts in Africa come close to being perceived, in overly simplistic terms, as just conflicts of East versus West, of all of Islam versus all of Christianity," he said.
"Like Christianity, Islam is a religion with different expressions," Bishop Wenski continued. "Tensions among these expressions of Islam have been exacerbated by the rise of militant Islam and the misuse and perversion of faith to justify violence."
"The US bishops' Conference continues to be deeply concerned about the mistreatment of Christians and other religious minorities in some Islamic countries and with growing tensions among different Muslim traditions. This does not mean that every instance of violence against Christians should be interpreted as persecution or that there is an inevitable and systematic persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in countries with Muslim majorities. It generally appears to be the case, however, that in societies with growing militant Islamist influences there are often increases in intolerance and discrimination against religious minorities, including Christians," Bishop Wenski said.
"Serious conflicts and religious tensions do exist between Christians and Muslims in some Islamic countries and the denial of religious liberty in these situations is a painful reality," he continued. "But it is essential to recognize that these problems can be made worse by ignoring them or exacerbated by policies that reinforce the sense that Islam itself is under siege. In addition to addressing forthrightly infringements on religious liberty, our country must be cognizant of a number of other social, economic, political and military factors that contribute to situations in which religious intolerance toward Christians and other religious minorities is more likely to grow."
Noting that the difficult situations of Christians vary in different countries with Muslim majorities, Bishop Wenski said the USCCB offers several general policy recommendations to support religious freedom in some of these countries.
"First, the U.S. government needs to make religious liberty even more central to its foreign policy in both policy and practice…Religious freedom is also a key to achieving greater justice and peace in our world…While every country needs to respect human rights and religious liberty, the U.S. needs to work collaboratively, consistently and intensively with Islamic countries to foster respect for religious liberty in theory and practice."
"Second, we urge the U.S. government more intensively and directly to engage religious communities and religious leaders…Since religious leaders can impact the attitudes and behaviors of believers, they should be a key constituency for genuine engagement and consultation for U.S. officials."
"Third, we recommend greater participation in and support for genuine interfaith dialogue."
"Fourth, we recommend promotion of concrete reciprocity in policies and practices of law that relate to religious freedom…Reciprocity means, for example, that the Catholic Church expects support for efforts to permit the construction of Christian churches, schools and other religious institutions in Islamic countries, and expects countries with Christian majorities to allow the same for their Muslim minorities."
"Fifth, the U.S. must address the social, economic, political and military factors that make it easier for opponents of religious freedom to incite religious intolerance. Although nothing justifies religious discrimination and persecution, social inequities, intense secularization, some abuses in the struggle with terrorism, the use of religious language to justify violence, and military occupations provide fuel for the fires of religious extremism and intolerance."
In his testimony, Bishop Wenski gave specific examples to illustrate aspects of the situations in which Christians find themselves in: Saudi Arabia; Iraq; Pakistan and Bangladesh; the Holy Land—Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories; Egypt; Nigeria; and Sudan.
NOTE: The full text of Bishop Wenski's testimony can be found on the Web at www.usccb.org/sdwp/international.