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US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Commitment to International Religious Freedom
Religious freedom, one of the most fundamental of human rights, is a liberty long championed by the United States and cherished by the American people. It is the policy of the United States Government to promote religious freedom worldwide, for every human being, regardless of religion, race, culture or nationality. Our policy is designed to encourage other nations to adhere to international standards of human rights and to promote fundamental U.S. concerns and values. While historically part of our overall human rights policy, the promotion of religious liberty as a foreign policy goal was given increased emphasis with the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which mandated this Annual Report.
There are several reasons why the United States promotes religious freedom. First, the quest for religious liberty has played an integral part in American history. Early in our nationís founding, the view that every human being has a fundamental right to believe, worship and practice according to his or her own conscience became a core conviction of the American people. Religious liberty is the first of the enumerated rights in our Constitution, and is known as "the first freedom," because the founders believed it to be a lynchpin of democracy and the other fundamental human rights.
Its realization was not easily achieved. Today Americans enjoy religious freedom, but it was not always so. Our history is not perfect, and yet that very history makes us all the more determined to protect what has been won. It makes us doubly determined to help those millions of people beyond our borders who suffer because of their faith. Indeed, as in past centuries, many of those who champion this liberty most passionately are new Americans who arrived as refugees fleeing religious persecution in their native lands.
Second, religious freedom is universal in its importance and applicability. It is one of those "unalienable rights" acknowledged in our own Declaration of Independence--a right not granted by governments, but rather the birthright of every human being, in every nation and every culture. This truth is acknowledged in the most important of all the international human rights instruments, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which notes that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." Accordingly, all are endowed with the right to "freedom of thought, conscience and religion."
Implicit in this language is a concept vital to the acceptance of human rights, including religious liberty. It is the belief in a common human nature that transcends cultural, racial, religious and other distinctions. The United Nations representatives of 1948 had witnessed in Nazism, and to a lesser extent in colonial regimes, a malevolent focus on racial and cultural differences. They were determined to articulate the existence of a human family comprised of persons equally endowed with dignity and worth irrespective of race, culture, religion, income or any other distinction.
Third, the promotion of religious freedom is intimately connected to the promotion of other fundamental human and civil rights, as well as to the growth of democracy. A government that acknowledges and protects freedom of religion and conscience is one that understands the inherent and inviolable dignity of the human person. Such a government is far more likely to protect, through rule of law, the other rights fundamental to human dignity, such as freedom from arbitrary arrest or seizure, or freedom from torture and murder.
Such a government is also more likely to protect the rights most closely associated with religious freedom, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and the rights of parents to raise their children in their faith. Together, these rights constitute the seedbed of democratic development. They encourage not only the institutions and procedures of democracy, such as representative government and free elections, but also the virtues of democracy, including a government and citizenry that value and nurture human dignity. When the United States promotes religious freedom, it is promoting the spread of democracy. More democracy means greater stability and economic prosperity.
Finally, U.S. religious freedom policy is a means of fighting the war on terrorism. The events of September 11, 2001 have had significant implications for that policy. The attacks by Al Qaeda highlighted the reality that people can and do exploit religion for terrible purposes, in some cases manipulating and destroying other human beings as mere instruments in the process. This is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon in human affairs. In the post Cold War world, some scholars are predicting that religious differences are likely to be a cause of major conflicts between civilizations.
Whether such theories are borne out or not, 9/11 has raised the stakes for U.S. religious freedom policy. To the extent that policy succeeds, it will provide one of the most effective and sustainable antidotes, not only to religious persecution and discrimination, but also to religion-based violence and a potential "clash of civilizations."
The reason is straightforward: where governments protect religious freedom, and citizens value it as a social good, religious persecution and religion-based violence find no warrant. Such societies not only tolerate religious differences, but many of its members see the exercise of religious devotion as constitutive of human freedom and dignity. They understand, as President Bush has stressed both here and abroad, that religious faith at its best yields productive, charitable citizens and stable societies. They also understand that to deprive persons of the right to religious liberty is to deny them their humanity in the most profound sense. At the heart of liberty is the right to ask the fundamental questions about the origins, nature, value and destiny of human life, and to worship and live in accord with the obligations that ensue.
This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.