At the very heart of human freedom is the right to religious freedom, since it deals with man’s most fundamental relationship: his relationship with God. --
Since the 1970s, the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy has stirred vigorous debate in this country. During the 1990s, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) worked to make religious liberty an important part of this debate. Religious liberty is a core American value that should help shape U.S. foreign policy. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, even greater vigilance is needed to ensure that human rights and religious liberty do not have a reduced role in U.S. foreign policy. Significant historical developments include:
- In October 1998, the was enacted. IRFA, which the USCCB supported, makes promotion of religious freedom an explicit U.S. foreign policy goal. The law provides a flexible menu of policy options to respond to the most serious violations, and better integrates religious liberty concerns into U.S. foreign policy by creating a new office for religious freedom within the State Department, providing for improved training and monitoring, and requiring annual reports by the State Department. The law covers all religious freedom violations in all countries, without preference.
- In May 1999, the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad (which included two Catholic Bishops) issued its important Final Report on how the United States could better promote respect for religious liberty abroad.
- IRFA also created a new nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to monitor religious freedom violations and make recommendations to the Administration and Congress. This commission issues its own annual report on the status of religious liberty. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Bishop Ricardo Ramírez of Las Cruces are current members. Former members include Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre.
The Significance of Religious Freedom: The concern for religious liberty is not new to USCCB. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America in the 70s and 80s to China, Sudan and Iraq today, the Bishops have promoted respect for religious liberty. Fostering religious freedom is part of USCCB’s broader efforts to ensure that promotion of human rights is central to U.S. foreign, security and trade policies.
Human Rights Conventions: USCCB supported U.S. ratification of the torture and genocide conventions, the covenants on race, and civil and political rights, and U.S. legislation governing trafficking. USCCB also urges ratification of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. U.S. participation in these and other human rights instruments is critical for strengthening international norms and adding credibility to its own efforts to promote greater respect for religious liberty and other basic rights.
Specific Cases: Dozens of countries violate religious freedom and human rights, often as part of a general disrespect for human rights. USCCB has focused, among others, on the following:
China: USCCB opposed extending Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR), formerly Most Favored Nation Trade Status, to China due to serious violations of religious freedom and other human rights. The U.S. Congress, however, granted permanent trade relations to China. USCCB continues to monitor and press for greater religious liberty there. Of particular concern is the persecution of religious groups, such as the unregistered Catholic and Protestant churches, and the intrusive interference by the state in the internal life of the “open” or recognized churches. The brutal attacks last November on a community of Catholic nuns in Xian highlighted the arbitrary persecution of religious believers in parts of the country.
Cuba: The 1998 papal visit to Cuba raised expectations that Cubans would be free to practice fully their faith, but the Cuban government still maintains excessive control over almost every aspect of daily life. The early years of outright persecution, expulsion of clergy, and confiscation of religious properties are past, but the Church is still restricted in receiving pastoral workers from abroad or in gaining access to communications media, and is still prevented from conducting its own schools. The arrests of March 2003 and lengthy sentences given to 75 non-violent dissidents, more than half of whom are Catholic activists of the Varela Project, has further damaged relations between the Church and the state and demonstrated deterioration in human rights.
Iraq: Iraq is at a critical juncture. While the elections are over, a new government is not in place and the newly adopted constitution contains contradictory clauses concerning basic human rights and protections for religious freedom. In the fall of 2004, the Chaldean Catholic bishops met with former Iraqi Prime Minister, Alawi, to express their deep concerns. From their perspective, one that the Conference shares, the historical role of Islam deserves respect, but it must be done in a way that ensures full religious freedom and human rights for minorities. The USCCB will continue to urge the US government to encourage Iraq to respect human rights and religious liberty. The Conference will also continue to support the Church in Iraq.
Nigeria: Religious conflict has increased after the transfer of power from a military to a civilian government, a situation worsened by the imposition of Shari’a law in Muslim-dominated northern states. Nine hundred people were massacred in clashes between Muslims and Christians in northern and central Nigeria in 2004. Inertia and impunity have resulted in the failure both to prosecute those responsible for the violence and to implement the proposed truth and reconciliation commission to defuse tensions and prevent a recurrence of the conflict.
Pakistan: Recent years have seen the massacres of Christian worshipers and attacks on Christian centers. Official discrimination against non-Muslim minorities has lessened, but has not been eliminated. The state has ended the separate electorate system whereby Christians could vote only for Christians and Muslims could vote only for Muslims, a 20-year system the Bishops called religious apartheid. Islamic extremists, however, continue to pose a serious danger. The coordinated attacks against Catholic and Protestant churches in the Punjab last November by Islamist fundamentalists illustrated the still difficult situation in the country.
Sudan: At the heart of Sudan’s civil war lie the struggle for religious liberty, ethnic “African” identity, and control of the country’s natural resources. While the creation of a government of national unity has raised hopes of a peaceful and equitable solution to the strife, obstacles remain to the full implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement. Among those challenges are continuing tensions with neighboring Chad, sagging international commitment to the peace process and other separatist movements in the east and west of the country. Meanwhile, questions persist about freedom of religion for non-Muslims living in areas in the north. In Darfur, widespread violence and violations of human rights continue, despite international attempts to alleviate the suffering.
Vietnam: While extensive restrictions on religious freedom still exist, recent years have seen some improvement, especially in relations between the Catholic Church and the government. Outright persecution of certain Buddhist and Evangelical groups persists. The long delays before allowing candidates for the priesthood and religious life to enter seminaries and novitiates have been somewhat mitigated in the past year, but the state still insists on maintaining excessive controls over religious practice. USCCB hopes the need for greater trade with the rest of the world will lead to loosening restrictions on religious life.
Related USCCB statements on human rights and religious freedom can be found at: www.usccb.org/sdwp/international/
For further information: Walt Grazer 202-541-3182 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax); email@example.com