(Update June 2005)
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.
-- Pope John Paul II, Address to Diplomats, 1/10/2005
Since the 1970s, the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy has stirred vigorous debate in this country. During the 1990's, the 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 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) 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 new 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 Ramirez 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 the 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: The USCCB supported U.S. ratification of the torture and genocide conventions, the covenants on race, and civil and political rights, and US legislation governing trafficking. The 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 the 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. The USCCB has focused, among others, on the following: China: The 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, has granted permanent trade relations to China. The 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 persecution and control of Tibetan Buddhism is especially shameful and well known.
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 as it prepares for self governance by January 30, 2005. The “transitional administrative law” that currently governs Iraq was adopted on February 28, 2004. It guarantees religious freedom and other basic human rights. The challenge will be to preserve and enhance these rights in the new permanent constitution that will be drafted during 2005. Again, one of the most contentious issues is the legal status of Islam and minority religious groups. 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 U.S. government must encourage full religious freedom for all Iraqis as a priority under the new constitution.
Nigeria: Religious conflict 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. The government’s national commission on interreligious dialogue is virtually defunct. In the absence of viable avenues for constructive dialogue, suspicions and fears about the ultimate religious and political goals of the different religious groups is leading to increased tensions and sporadic violence.
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.
Sudan: At the heart of Sudan’s civil war is the struggle for religious liberty, ethnic “African” identity, and the control of the country’s natural resources. While the government in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army recently signed a comprehensive peace agreement, peace will be a slow and long process. Meanwhile, there are virtually no guarantees to ensure freedom of religion for non-Muslims living in areas that remain under government control. In addition, other minority groups in northern and western Sudan continue to suffer from a wide range of human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest, discrimination and slavery.
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. Long delays before allowing candidates for the priesthood and religious life to enter seminaries and novitiates continue. The state still insists on maintaining excessive controls over all religious practice. We hope the need for ever greater contact and trade with the rest of the world will lead to loosening some restrictions on religious life.
Given the continuing attacks and discrimination against Christians in Iraq, USCCB consults regularly with the State Department, the National Security Council and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to express the Conference’s concerns for the protection and just treatment of Iraqi Christians and other religious communities. Working in coalition with others, USCCB is promoting guarantees of religious freedom in the new permanent constitution for Iraq that will be drafted. Working with Patriarch Delly and Bishop Ibrahim, the Office has forwarded the names of Iraqi citizens to the State Department and US Commission on International Religious Freedom for further training in democracy building and constitutional development.
USCCB works closely with the State Department Office on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on a broad range of religious freedom concerns. Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Ramirez are members of the Commission. USCCB provides staff support to the bishops when requested and meets regularly with government bodies to exchange information and to convey our concerns about a number of countries. Specific information about particular countries is covered in other updates concerning regional activities.
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); firstname.lastname@example.org