Archbishop of Newark
Chairman, International Policy Committee
U.S. Catholic Conference
September 20, 1999
I welcome publication of the first annual country report by the State Department's new Office of International Religious Freedom, a body created under a 1998 law that the U.S. Catholic bishops strongly supported. I very much hope that this report will fulfill its intended purpose of highlighting violations of religious freedom around the world and making these concerns a more integral part of the U.S. foreign policy agenda.
Religious freedom is receiving new and welcome attention in recent years. This is not, however, a new issue for the U.S. Catholic bishops. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America during the Cold War to China and East Timor today we have worked -- sometimes quietly, at other times more publicly -- on behalf of those denied their fundamental right to religious freedom or those under attack because of their faith-inspired work for justice and peace.
The State Department's report highlights the sad fact the religious freedom that we Americans take for granted is only a distant dream for much of the world's population. This week in East Timor, as in Bosnia and Burundi in recent years, the Catholic Church has experienced a bloody persecution, with church leaders and institutions being targeted because of their religious-ethnic identity and their work for justice and peace. Sudanese Christians, moderate Muslims and animists face enslavement, mass starvation and terrible violence at the hands of a government seeking to impose a radical version of Islamic law on the country. In China, the officially-recognized Catholic Church is severely restricted, while the unrecognized Church is banned and its members face harassment and imprisonment; other "unofficial" churches face similar persecution, as do Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.
Just two weeks ago I was part of a delegation of U.S. bishops, led by the president of our episcopal conference Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, that travelled to Vietnam. There we found a growing and vibrant Church which enjoys greater freedom than before, yet many intolerable restrictions on normal church activities remain in place. In Saudi Arabia the situation is especially serious, with persecution of religious believers of all faiths other than the dominant Muslim sect. Russia, Belarus, Belgium, Greece, Turkey and a growing number of other countries in Europe have passed ill-advised laws that discriminate against minority religions. In India and Pakistan, meanwhile, Christians and other minority religions are threatened by mob violence.
Unfortunately, this is just a part of a long litany of religious persecution, discrimination, and intolerance of religion around the world. I hope and pray that the attention now being focused on this issue will advance the cause of religious freedom for believers of all faiths.