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"Religious Liberty in Transatlantic Perspective"

by Michael E. Parmly, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Remarks at the Institute for Religion and Public Policy's Conference on "Transatlantic Conversations on Religious Coexistence" Washington, DC April 26, 2001

I am delighted to be here this morning, and to have the opportunity to kick off the second day of this conference. For at least two reasons, I have a personal interest in the subject. In my own experiences in the Foreign Service, I have seen both the heights that a diverse society can reach and the pain experienced by a society torn apart by its differences.
Second, this is an important subject: transatlantic conversations have been taking place for years on important subjects such as missile defense, the proper roles of NATO and the Western European Union, US - EU trade, and the like. Those conversations have been, and continue to be, important to the collective and national interests of nations on both sides of the Atlantic.
But our conversation - a dialogue on religious freedom and its proper role in the foreign policies of our respective countries - has only begun. And, for that reason alone, such a conversation is critical because it is long overdue. Democracies can and do disagree. We have had vigorous debates over strategic and trade policy, and we will undoubtedly continue to do so. We can reliably predict hat the habit of cooperation in areas of military and commerce is so strong that we will resolve our differences as we have in the past.
My message to you this morning is that we need to develop a "habit of cooperation" in the areas of promoting religious freedom. To date, we have not done so. We have acted like two old friends who were born and raised in the same hometown and exposed to the same fundamental values. Separated for a period of years, the two old friends have had different experiences and now they find it hard to talk about their common interests. Indeed, their closeness has become a barrier.
Let me take this opportunity to reaffirm the United States commitment to religious freedom, which has always been at the core of American life and values. We have no hierarchy of rights. Freedom of speech is every bit as important as freedom of conscience. But, chronologically, the first freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This guarantee of personal religious freedom is central to our concept of freedom and has guided the laws and practices of Americans since the establishment of this great nation. After all, this country was founded by people searching for a place to express their faith freely without persecution.
Here, in Virginia, the oldest and deepest roots of religious liberty can be found. It was here that Thomas Jefferson drafted his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, after which the First Amendment was modeled. Jefferson's great document underscored the conviction that religious beliefs should be matters of individual conscience and completely immune from any interference by the state. Both Jefferson and Madison considered this document one of the greatest achievements in their lives. In fact, Jefferson asked that on his tombstone he not be remembered as President of the United States but as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence, and as the founder of the University of Virginia.
Americans' support for religious freedom has remained strong throughout the centuries. In his speech to Congress on January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stressed the importance of religious liberty for all and stated that guaranteeing this freedom was a compelling reason for us to get involved in the struggle for freedom in Europe. President Roosevelt said, "In the future days which we seek to make more secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms." One of these freedoms was the "freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world."
President Roosevelt's sentiments were indicative of the changing nature of American foreign policy and a testament to the value Americans put on religious freedom. The American President and his people recognized, as we do today, that freedom of religion should not only be guaranteed to Americans but to all citizens of this world.
This idea has transformed our foreign policy and has led to the development and articulation of U.S. human rights policies abroad. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, more and more religious organizations lobbied Congress to take an active role in protecting people's rights to worship worldwide. These activists understood that everyone deserves the right to practice, worship and observe their religious beliefs regardless of where they live, for as humans they have an inviolable worth and inalienable human rights.
Americans also began to understand that where the rights of persons of any faith are not secure, no one's rights are secure. This knowledge led to the conviction that our foreign policy must address religious persecution abroad.
In response to this surge of activism and interest, the Department of State began to intensify its attention to religious freedom. In 1997, interest from the top resulted in the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad and institutionalized mechanisms for promoting religious freedom. In support of the victims of religious persecution and discrimination, the Department also pledged that all American Embassies and Consulates would increase U.S. advocacy, monitoring, and reporting on this issue.
Meanwhile, Congress began to debate the subject of international religious freedom. They realized the difficulty of the issues, for promoting human rights in sovereign nations is never easy or without controversy. They recognized, however, that their leadership could improve the lives of those being persecuted and discriminated against for their religious beliefs. As a result, they brought together a multitude of faith-based NGOs and human rights NGOs to formulate an effective approach to promoting religious freedom abroad. The outcome of this effort was a piece of breakthrough legislation, the International Religious Freedom Act. This law established the Office of International Religious Freedom under an Ambassador at Large within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; an annual report assessing religious freedom in 195 countries and describing U.S. actions to support it; the designation of severe violators and the establishment of penalties; and a separate, bipartisan U.S. Commission to serve as an independent advisor on international religious freedom issues.
We have never assumed that legislation alone would end the need for debate or our attention to religious freedom. We understand that the effort continues and that we must continue to work the issues in order to affect the situation on the ground. We also understand that the United States is not alone in this effort, and that is why it is so important for us to keep up this transatlantic dialogue.
In 1948, Americans and Europeans joined hands with the rest of the world to establish the phenomenal Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The drafters of this covenant, including the great Frenchman Jacques Maritain, and its supporters joined hands and raised their voices because they recognized the dignity and worth of all human beings. The believed that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". That clearly included religious freedom.
We have signed this document, and we continue to promote religious freedom because we believe that the denial of religious freedom is one of the most egregious human rights violations. Make no mistake about it: religious freedom is not only about being able to enter a church or a synagogue, it is not only about being able to say prayers in public or not to say prayers at all, nor is it only about being able to wear a cross or not to wear one.
Religious freedom is about that which makes us human and gives our life meaning. Without the freedom to practice, observe and worship what we believe, or not to believe at all, we are not free to pursue the ultimate truth about our purpose and destiny. Religious freedom ensures that every person is able to look to a higher being, to believe that we are not alone, to live our lives by the moral codes we see fit. Without this right, we are not free to develop to our fullest potential or to discover our reason for living.
We also realize that promoting religious freedom benefits our nations. As mature democracies, we have seen how the freedom of religion and conscience keeps our democracies strong, for religion often plays an important role in developing public policy. Democracy is a continuing experiment. Its vitality depends on the diversity of voices heard, the clamor of debate. Silencing these voices would only lead to the perpetuation of the status quo, and would jeopardize the vibrancy of our national debates. We must not adopt the attitude that religious minorities should simply be tolerated, then. We should embrace the fact that, like other groups that bring their ideas and ideals to the table of democratic discourse, religious groups, large and small, old and new, add diversity and vitality to our nations, bolster our democratic traditions, and increase the wisdom of our public policies.
Working together in the international arena, we have made tremendous progress in promoting people's religious liberty. Yet, we only have to look around, to read the daily news, or to consult the State Department's 2000 Report on International Religious Freedom to discover that we have a long way to go.
In too many nations around the world, governments use legislation, intimidation, and violence to keep citizens from freely practicing their religion. Some of the same governments that have signed international covenants and pledged "not to discriminate on the basis of religion" show little respect for religious freedom. In many countries, we see the situation on the ground continuing to deteriorate. In such countries, members of religious minorities are deemed dangerous to the state and are often subject to harassment, extortion, prolonged detention, physical abuse, and incarceration in prison or in 'reeducation through labor camps.'
The question is, then, what will we do to stop this trend? What will we do to promote religious freedom and to encourage reconciliation among religious groups? We have signed international agreements calling for religious freedom, yet we continue to see these mandates flouted or ignored on the ground. Both the United States and the European community have pledged to raise the issue of religious freedom and to make the promotion of religious freedom an integral part of our foreign policies. Now we must talk, we must identify how our efforts can reinforce each other's, in order to change the human rights situation on the ground. It is time for us to be candid and to develop a "habit of cooperation" on the issue of religious freedom, so that we may help to improve the lives of countless human beings throughout the world. I look forward to hearing the results of this important conference and to continuing the Department's work with the NGO/human rights/religious freedom community to promote international religious freedom everywhere in the world.

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