Religious Freedom: The Most Fundamental Human Right
In the U.S., the notion of religious freedom can easily be taken for granted. After all, there is nothing to stop Americans from attending the church, mosque, temple, or other sacred place of their choosing to express their faith. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights sets in stone the fundamental right to practice religion without restriction. It is, in essence, the most elemental human right that we possess. The personal experience of spiritual things is the very source of religion. Leadership Council for Human Rights President Kathryn Cameron Porter succinctly sums up the importance of religious freedom: “It is between you and your god.”
John Hanford, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, says that “freedom of religion and conscience is the cornerstone of liberty…As we maintain the vitality of a pluralistic society, we work to ensure equal treatment of faith-based organizations and people of faith.”
People of faith are afforded more than just the right to practice their beliefs. Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) says, “Religious liberty begins with the right to worship freely but doesn’t end there; it also encompasses freedom of thought and conscience, and the right to build schools and start charities.”
Despite the U.S. guarantee to protect religious freedom, some countries do not share this commitment, and even within the U.S., de facto discrimination against certain religious groups sometimes occurs. The countries which the U.S. deems the worst offenders of religious freedom, or the so-called “Countries of Particular Concern,” include Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Vietnam.
Ambassador Hanford acknowledges that significant progress has been made in Vietnam in the last year alone, but other CPCs, like China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia still provide virtually no protections for religious freedom. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, “crimes” such as insulting Islam and committing apostasy (converting to a religion other than Islam) are punishable by beheading under Shari’a law. In Afghanistan, which is not on the CPC list, the publisher of a human rights magazine was jailed in October, 2005 for running articles critical of certain aspects of Islamic law (his prosecutor sought the death penalty). Some nations imprison religious dissidents, or leaders of churches not sanctioned by the state. In South East Asian Communist countries, all religious groups must register to be officially recognized by the government and to be safe from harassment. House churches are illegal and their leaders often face problems with local government officials.
Achieving tolerance among different communities of faith and their governments is tantamount to ensuring the respect for all people’s human rights. Congress, along with the human rights community must continue to work to create conditions for true religious freedom to prevail in the world so that everyone is entitled to pursue the spiritual path they have chosen. Individual faith, far from being a crime, is for some the defining characteristic in their lives. Forcing communities of faith to worship in secret, in fear of jail time or even death, is a gross violation of the most fundamental human right.