human rights

It's tragic that religious liberty has suddenly turned into something scary

NEW YORK -- Early in his career in Congress, Democrat Tony Hall of Ohio had his politics worked out, but he wasn't sure how to combine them with the convictions of his Christian faith.

Then he took an official research trip to Ethiopia during the great famines of the early 1980s and these two powerful forces in his life came crashing together.

"I saw 25 children die one morning. As I walked among these people, mothers were handing me their dead children, thinking that I was a doctor and that I could actually fix them, take care of them. I was stunned," said Hall.

"I came home from that experience -- seeing death. I had seen so many people die. I thought, this is a way that I can bring God into my work place and not have to preach."

About that time, Hall formed a friendship -- one rooted in decades of weekly "prayer partner" meetings -- with another member of Congress who was equally committed to defending human rights. Together, Hall and Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia excelled as a bipartisan team focusing on poverty, hunger and religious freedom.

They're still working together, even though Wolf left the House of Representatives in 2014. He currently holds the Wilson Chair in Religious Freedom at Baylor University. Hall left Congress in 2002, when President George W. Bush asked him to serve for several years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on food and agriculture issues. Ambassador Hall has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Both men agreed that it would be harder for this kind of bipartisan, faith-centered friendship to flourish today, in an era in which the levels of anger and distrust on display in Washington, D.C., have reached toxic levels.

To make matters worse, said Wolf, it has become harder to defend basic human rights when they are linked to faith, because "religious liberty" has turned into a dangerous term in public life, one consistently framed in quotation marks in mainstream news reports -- implying that it has become tainted.

Hillary Clinton defends religious liberty -- abroad

The U.S. State Department wasn't surprised last October when Egyptian security forces smashed into flocks of demonstrators outside the state Radio and Television Building, killing 25 and injuring hundreds. After all, the rally was called to protest the government's failure to stop the burning of Coptic Orthodox churches or to arrest and convict leaders of the mobs. Sure enough, waves of thugs attacked the Copts, starting riots that drew deadly police vehicles.

Once again, it didn't shock State Department insiders that no one was held accountable. Coptic Christians and other religious minorities continue to live in fear.

Similar tragedies have been sadly predictable in the past, but that must change if true democracy is going to come to Egypt and other lands struggling to escape centuries of strife, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks marking the recent release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.

"Egyptians are building a brand new democracy," said Clinton, describing her recent visit there. "As I told the Christians with whom I met, the United States does not take the side of one political party over another. What we do is stand firmly on the side of principles. Yes, we do support democracy -- real democracy, where every citizen has the right to live, work and worship how they choose. ...

"We are prepared to work with the leaders that the Egyptian people choose. But our engagement with those leaders will be based on their commitment to universal human rights and universal democratic principles."

The "sobering" reality, she stressed, is that religious freedom is "sliding backwards" worldwide, with more than a billion people living under regimes that deny them freedom of speech, association and liberty on matters of faith. The State Department once again released its familiar list of notorious "countries of particular concern" -- Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

This latest report is packed with telling details that are hard to ignore, said Thomas Farr, director of Georgetown University's Project on Religious Freedom. He served as the first director of the State Department office on international religious freedom.

The problem is that America's ambassador at large for international religious freedom has "little authority, few resources and a bureaucracy that is -- notwithstanding the secretary's fine words -- largely indifferent" to the global state of religious freedom, noted Farr, in remarks posted at National Review Online. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that this issue is not a priority for this administration, except perhaps for the speechwriters (who are doing an outstanding job)."

In her speech, Clinton did address a few hot topics that have previously been out of bounds, such as blasphemy laws. It's time for Americans to realize, she said, that matters of faith and conscience are often life-and-death concerns -- literally.

"Certain religions are banned completely, and a believer can be sentenced to death," she said. "Strict laws ban blasphemy and defamation of religion. And when your words are interpreted as violations of those laws, you can be sentenced to death. Violence toward religious minorities often goes unpunished by authorities who look the other way.

"So the message is clear: If your beliefs don't have government approval, beware."

When Americans defend religious freedom they are not simply defending values found in this land's laws and creeds. They are also defending a key central tenet of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, Clinton quoted Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

It's impossible to read those words, she said, without realizing that "religious freedom is not just about religion." It's about unbelievers, heretics, apostates and converts being able to live, think and gather in safety without the "state looking over their shoulder." Without freedom of conscience, said Clinton, democracy is not safe.

"You can't debate someone who believes that anyone who disagrees with him by definition disagrees with God," she said. "So let me simply say this: People can believe that they and only those like them possess the one and only truth. That's their right, though they do not have the right to harm those they think harbor incorrect views."

Rights and wrongs of Pastor Terry Jones

The deaths of the 10 International Assistance Mission medical workers inspired headlines that were both shocking and numbingly familiar, since these are dangerous times for believers whose convictions steer them into Afghanistan. A Taliban blandly leader told the press: "They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all."

If the gunmen had only waited a few weeks, they could have claimed that their victims were linked to a powerful global conspiracy to burn Korans.

That's the kind of statement that the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was worried about when he -- with countless other evangelicals -- urged the Rev. Terry Jones to cancel his "International Burn a Koran Day" event on Sept. 11. The leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., did precisely that, but not before forcing religious and political leaders to wrestle with agonizing First Amendment issues.

"The behavior of this church is not Christian. I cannot imagine Christ burning any religious texts," argued the Rev. Richard Land, in an online Washington Post forum. "This behavior is unfortunately one of the prices we pay for living in a free society with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even when it is odious and reprehensible."

A protest of this kind would "besmirch the reputation of our Savior, and that makes it blasphemy," he said. The whole idea was "appalling, disgusting and brainless."

The bonfire would have made life more dangerous for missionaries, human-rights activists, diplomats and American soldiers. Those flames also would have made life much more dangerous for Christian converts and members of other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands.

Nevertheless, these clergy and politicos had to wrestle with the fact that Jones had every right to buy copies of the Koran and, after planning a fire small enough to wink at local laws, strike a match.

After all, this would, have been another act of painful symbolic speech.

Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Yes, and demonstrators in the Reagan White House era burned the American flag. Muslims overseas have burned copies of the novel, "The Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie, and Bibles, too.

How many times have followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., waved their lurid signs -- "God Hates the U.S.A." is one of the mildest -- at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? On Sept. 11, the Westboro Baptist Church crew burned a Koran and an American flag at the same time. For once, most journalists elected to look the other way.

In the case of Jones and his church in Gainesville, the Council on American-Islamic Relations decided that the timing of his Koran travesty was simply too hot to ignore. Even though the group regularly ignores the videos that it receives of people burning, shooting or ripping apart Islam's holy book, CAIR decided to issue a July 19 press release announcing its own protest of "International Burn a Koran Day." The group handed out free copies of the Koran.

The word was officially out and the media storm kept growing as angry reactions -- from Arab streets to the White House -- rolled into the world's newsrooms.

Lost in the din were the quiet, measured words of many religious leaders who tried to walk a knife's edge of logic in their public statements.

For starters, they had to note the painful fact that the Dove World Outreach Center was an independent Pentecostal congregation and its members were responsible to no higher religious authority than their own pastor. Thus, there was no one who could stop this event, other than public officials who, in order to do so, would have had to trample the rights of Jones and his flock.

The bottom line: Blasphemy is not illegal in the United States of America.

As the clock ticked down, Land stressed that the "only thing more dangerous than what this pastor is doing would be to allow the government to interfere. This would set a terrible precedent and would diminish all our First Amendment rights. The best way to combat this is to exercise our free speech right to condemn what he is doing in the simplest way and most direct terms."

That global blind spot

BERKELEY, Calif. -- The interfaith coalition that formed in the 1990s to lobby for religious liberty in China was so large and so diverse that even the New York Times noticed it.

One petition included two Catholic cardinals and a dozen bishops, Evangelical broadcasters, Eastern Orthodox bishops, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Baha'is, Orthodox and liberal rabbis, Scientologists and Protestant clergy of a various and sundry races and traditions. One Times article noted that these were signatures that "rarely appear on the same page."

But there's the rub. This was already old news.

Many of these religious leaders had already been working for a year or more on what became the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, landmark legislation that made religious freedom a "core objective" in all U.S. foreign policy, noted political scientist Allen Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, speaking at a conference called "The Politics of Faith -- Religion in America."

This bill, he said, was the opening act in "broader, faith-based quest" to weave moral content into the fabric of American policies around the world, while liberating religious liberty from its status as the "forgotten stepchild of human rights."

President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act on Oct. 27, 1998, and in the decade that followed this same interfaith coalition backed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002 and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004.

This coalition was "made up of groups that usually fought like cats and dogs on other issues, but would join together to work for religious freedom," said Hertzke, speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, long known as Ground Zero human rights activism.

These leaders would work on religious-liberty issues over morning coffee and bagels, before returning to their offices where they usually found themselves in total opposition to one another on abortion, gay rights, public education and a host of other church-state issues. Nevertheless, their coordinated labors on foreign-policy projects "produced trust and relationships that had never existed before," he said.

The question is whether this coalition's ties that bind can survive tensions created by the current White House race and renewed conflicts over religious and cultural issues in America.

"The kinds of energies generated in these kinds of social movements are hard to sustain," said Hertzke, after the conference. "There was always the concern that fighting over the familiar social issues would siphon away some of the energy that held this remarkable coalition together for a decade. ...

"The fear is that if people feel really threatened on the issues here at home that matter to them the most -- like abortion -- then they will not be able to invest time and resources in these human-rights issues around the world."

One reason this interfaith coalition never received much credit for its successes, he said, is that journalists usually focused on the efforts of conservative Christians to oppose the rising global tide of persecution of other Christians. This media preoccupation with the "Christian Right" often warped news coverage of broad, interfaith projects to protect the rights of all religious minorities.

In many cases, the results were inaccurate, biased and patronizing.

"Thus, abusive treatment of Christians abroad was labeled 'persecution' -- in quotation marks." Expressing similar grammatical doubts, a "grassroots group was described as gathering to pray for 'what it calls' Christian martyrs," noted Hertzke, in his chapter in "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," a new book produced by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.

In one New York Times article, he noted, Christian activists seeking the release of prisoners were described as writing letters to countries "whose names they cannot pronounce." Another article described efforts to end the civil war in Sudan as a "pet cause of many religious conservatives."

This was a strange way to describe a movement that, at its best, combined the social-networking skills of evangelical megachurches with the pro-justice chutzpah of Jewish groups, the global reach of Catholic holy orders and the charisma of Buddhist activists in Hollywood.

"What we found out was that human rights are part of one package," said Hertzke. "If you pull out the pin of religious freedom, it's hard to support freedom of speech, freedom of association and other crucial human rights. ... Religious freedom is a rich and strategic human right."

'No go' zones in UK -- again

The alleged crime took place at the corner of Alum Rock and Ellesmere roads in Birmingham, England, where an officer spotted two missionaries distributing "God's Bridge to Eternal Life" tracts.

The controversial pamphlets contained comments such as, "Throughout history individuals have tried many ways to gain or earn eternal life, but every attempt has been unsuccessful." There were Bible verses, such as, "Not by works of righteousness, which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us. Titus 3:5a."

What happened next has reopened a painful debate about so-called "no go zones," areas that may as well be off limits to British citizens who do not heed Islamic laws.

According to a statement by the Rev. Arthur Cunningham, the "police community support officer" told him "you're not allowed to preach ... here. This is a Muslim area. He said, 'You know, you guys are committing a hate crime here with what you're doing. I'm going to have to call you in and take you in.' Then he took his radio and he said something like, 'There's a hate crime in progress here. I need assistance.' "

This occurred three months ago, but legal actions by Cunningham and the Rev. Joseph Abraham have created a wave of new coverage. Both men carry American passports, although Abraham was born a Muslim in Egypt and then converted to Christianity.

While declining to discuss details, West Midlands Police officials have released statements saying their investigation found that the officer acted "with the best of intentions" and that "the PCSO has been offered guidance about what constitutes a hate crime and advice on communication style."

Another statement: "We would like to assure all communities that there are not any 'no go' areas in the West Midlands Police area and we will defend the rights of the individual to freedom of expression and religious faiths."

The "no go zone" debate began in earnest when Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who was raised in Pakistan in a family with Christian and Muslim roots, expressed fears that England is splintering into segregated communities of citizens living "parallel lives."

"It is critically important to all that the freedom to discuss freely and perhaps to have our views changed, whether in politics, religion or science, be encouraged and not diminished," wrote Nazir-Ali, in a newspaper essay that led to death threats against him.

Christianity and Islam are both evangelistic faiths, which creates sparks when their traditional, growing forms collide. However, Christian evangelism is banned in many Muslim lands and some Christian converts have faced death sentences as apostates.

In the Alum Rock case, the missionaries freely admit they were seeking converts. Abraham and Cunningham insist that they were told they would be physically attacked if they dared to return.

"The actions and words used by the officers were intimidating and were calculated to warn and-or frighten our clients and to have the effect of deterring our clients from lawfully expressing their opinions and manifesting their beliefs and to have a chilling effect on the exercise by them of their right to manifest their beliefs," according to a document prepared for police by activists at the Christian Institute. "Our clients were left with the understanding that they could not express their religious beliefs in Alum Rock Road without committing a hate crime."

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has reported that the officer involved in this incident is active in the local branch of the National Association of Muslim Police. The West Midlands police force also made recent headlines when it accused a BBC Dispatches program -- entitled "Undercover Mosques" -- of distorting Muslim statements about terrorism.

All of this has led to heightened tensions about how to balance Muslim concerns with British laws.

"Freedom is not, of course, absolute. It is only possible in the context of the Common Good, where the freedom of each has to be exercised with respect for the freedom of all," according to a new essay by Nazir-Ali, in Standpoint magazine.

"Freedom of belief, of expression, and the freedom to change one's belief are, however, vitally important for a free society, and the onus must be on those who wish to restrict these in any way to show why this is necessary. Nor can we say that such freedoms apply in some parts of the country and of the world and not in others."

Big Ben preaches human rights

It would be hard to pick a more symbolic moment to join the church than during an Easter Vigil Mass -- the high point of the ancient Christian calendar.

Thus, the pope traditionally baptizes several new Catholics during this rite in St. Peter's Basilica. This year, one of the converts was Magdi Allam, a high-profile journalist and, perhaps, Italy's most famous "moderate" Muslim.

This caused a firestorm. One Muslim scholar active in interfaith talks condemned the "Vatican's deliberate and provocative act of baptizing Allam ... in such a spectacular way." Aref Ali Nayed, director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, wrote: "It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points."

This dramatic scene caught Vatican watchers by surprise.

When experts compare Pope Benedict XVI with his predecessor, one common observation is that Pope John Paul II was, because of his background as an actor, the master of grand gestures that soared above the usual dense papal prose. Meanwhile, the current pope -- a former professor who has written shelves of theological works -- has a reputation for being rather dry.

"If John Paul weren?t a pope, he would have been a movie star," said John L. Allen, Jr., the National Catholic Reporter's veteran Vatican correspondent and author of two books on the current pope. "If Benedict weren?t a pope, he would have been a university professor."

Nevertheless, it would "be a mistake to believe that Benedict is simply incapable of talking in pictures when he has a point he wants to make or that kind of flair for the just right dramatic gesture," said Allen, speaking at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The question, of course, is whether Benedict will make any dramatic gestures during his upcoming visit to the Washington, D.C., and New York City. While politicos will insist on sifting his texts for any sound bites that might affect the White House race, Allen and another Vatican expert said it would be wiser to focus on Benedict's April 18 speech at the United Nations.

This is, after all, the official reason that he is coming to America. And, after that symbolic Easter baptism, the pope may choose to underline a passage in the UN's own Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion," states Article 18. "This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private. ..."

Benedict knows that the UN is, throughout 2008, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known for writing "Witness to Hope," a 992-page biography of John Paul II. For the pope and Vatican diplomats, this document represents "a kind of moral constitution for the world," built on a "common moral consensus" that is under attack.

Any defense of human rights, stressed Weigel, requires the use of a "word that Benedict XVI has brought into the Vatican's inter-religious dialogue in a powerful way -- reciprocity. If there is a great mosque in Rome welcomed by the leadership of the Catholic Church, why not a church in Saudi Arabia? If we recognize the freedom of others to change their religious location as conscience dictates, that needs to be recognized by dialogue partners as well."

Or to cite another example, a Christian who converts to Islam in Italy doesn't need to hire armed bodyguards. But this isn't true for Muslims who choose to convert to another faith while living in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and other parts of the world -- even in some corners of Europe.

The key, said Allen, is that Benedict XVI isn't trying -- here's a sound bite -- to "launch a new crusade." Instead, the pope wants to encourage more Muslims to defend religious liberty, while continuing to reject any brand of secularism that denies the existence of universal, eternal, truths.

"In that struggle," said Allen, "Benedict believes that a more moderate, reformed form of Islam ought to be Christianity?s natural ally." In the pope's worldview, the "serious religious believers in the world ought to be the ones who hold the line against the dictatorship of relativism."

Fighting blasphemy laws is blasphemy

OXFORD, England -- Abdul Rahman of Afghanistan was not the first Muslim convert to Christianity to be sentenced to death and he will not be the last.

Human-rights activists around the world cheered when -- despite efforts by the post-Taliban parliament -- he was allowed to seek asylum in Italy. Other converts have been less fortunate, facing imprisonment, abuse, torture and death at the hands of state officials or vigilantes in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and elsewhere.

While Rahman's plight drew waves of prayers, few Western believers noticed a related case last year that was just as important, according to Paul Marshall, of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

Journalist Ali Mohaqeq Nasab was jailed for his work with Women's Rights magazine in Kabul. Among his many sins, the liberal Shiite cleric had argued that Muslim apostates should not face execution. Thus, radicals demanded that he face the gallows himself. He repented.

"If it is blasphemous to discuss charges of blasphemy, then you have in effect a totalitarian system," said Marshall, one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. We both took part in a seminar last week for journalists from around the world, focusing on blasphemy and freedom of the press.

"Blasphemy charges mean that you cannot discuss the blasphemy charges. Hence, seeking to remove, minimize or otherwise immobilize legal bans on blasphemy, apostasy, insulting Islam and insulting public religious sentiments is an indispensable first step in creating the necessary political space for debate that could lead to other reforms. Unless you can get this out of the way, you can't discuss other issues."

It's crucial, said Marshall, to realize that Islamists are using laws against apostasy and blasphemy to threaten liberal Muslims just as often, or more often, than against actual converts. When Osama bin Laden issues pronouncements against blasphemy, he reserves his strongest words for Muslims who want to compromise with the West.

There is no law higher for Muslims than Sharia law and no courts higher than those that enforce it. One notorious law in Pakistan says: "Whoever, by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished by death."

The ultimate insult is for a Muslim to abandon the faith. So it matters little that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief. ..."

In recent years, powerful Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere have urged their Sharia courts to restore and enforce traditional penalties for crimes such as apostasy and "blasphemy against the prophet," said Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who grew up in a primarily Shiite family in Pakistan.

The bottom line is that penalties other than death are viewed as repugnant to Islam. Judges have little room to maneuver and the whole world is watching.

"The question, of course, is whether in a world such as ours -- which is increasingly interconnected -- religions have to be accountable not only to themselves and their followers, but to others," said the bishop. "Questions of personal liberty, of life, cannot be left just to circles of believers."

Nevertheless, it may become harder for moderate Muslims and their allies to avoid these questions, even in the safety of the West. Earlier this year, an organization called "Supporters of God's Messenger" sent out an email threatening to kill 30 or more "atheists," "polytheists" and Muslims who cooperate with "worshippers of the cross" and other believers.

Marshall noted that the message called people by name, including Muslims in America, and included information about their home addresses, their children's schools and times when their wives were alone at home.

"Appeasement of such groups will not work," he said. If Western leaders fail to take a stand, "violent Islamists will accept their victory and move on to demand the next part of their agenda -- the silencing or death of those who reject or criticize their program, including, especially, Muslims. ...

"If even Western democracies cannot provide the political space for Muslims to debate these critical questions concerning the meaning of Islam, then all hope of an Islamic reform movement will be lost."