U.S. Ambassador on Religious Freedom

Interview With Jim Nicholson

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ROME, DEC. 1, 2004 (Zenit.org).- This Friday the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is sponsoring a conference on «Religious Freedom: The Cornerstone of Human Dignity.»

U.S. Ambassador Jim Nicholson spoke with ZENIT about the event and its context.

Q: Where did the idea for this conference come from and what are its aims?

Nicholson: President Bush has said that religious liberty is the first freedom of the human soul. America stands for that freedom in our own country, and we speak for that freedom throughout the world. We have done so from the days of George Washington’s declaration that «the government of the United States … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.»

Religious freedom is a central element of United States’ foreign policy, whose primary goal is to promote human dignity worldwide. Promoting religious freedom is closely linked to our broader efforts to build respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and economic freedom and prosperity worldwide.

Religious liberty is also a value and a goal we share with the Holy See, and a subject on which we collaborate closely. Reflecting this shared commitment, I am delighted that the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, will open our conference with a keynote address on the Holy See’s approach to religious freedom.

Q: You have been a staunch defender of human dignity and rights in many fields, why did you feel that this one was so particularly important to host?

Nicholson: Religious freedom is under threat in many countries around the globe today and millions of people are deprived of their most basic freedom as a human being. This alone should make it a priority for all who care about human dignity.

By raising awareness of the problems facing people of faith in various countries and exploring what the U.S., the Holy See and other countries can do to redress them, our goal is to expand the reach of religious freedom and, therefore, of human dignity.

Moreover, religious liberty in today’s world is closely linked to world peace and stability. Where religious liberty is not respected, where religious tolerance and respect for the rights of others is unknown, conflict and violence are all too common.

That is why religious liberty and its related themes of religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue have moved to the forefront of international politics today, and that is also why we will examine religious liberty during the conference as the cornerstone of human dignity and international order.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge and-or threat to religious freedom in the world today?

Nicholson: The fundamental threat is a desire, whether from governments or extremist groups, to control the freedom of conscience of individuals under their control. This takes many forms.

For example, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes such as North Korea and China seek to control religious belief or practices. Other states, such as Saudi Arabia or Eritrea, are hostile toward minority or non-approved religions.

Some states discriminate against or actively prosecute members of minority religions, or enforce discriminatory legislation or policies. All of these threats infringe on the most basic human right of belief and conscience, and we hope to shine a light on all of them during our conference.

Q: What can be done about such threats?

Nicholson: In bringing together world leaders and experts to call attention to existing problems, we can help build pressure on governments to address these threats and explore ways to expand global cooperation to promote religious freedom.

For example, the United States, through our annual report on International Religious Freedom, monitors religious freedom in every country in the world and can impose sanctions on countries that fail to take steps to address problems.

This year the report cites China, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Eritrea as «countries of particular concern,» and could lead to specific sanctions if these countries fail to make progress toward greater freedom.

Q: How do you feel the Church and especially Pope John Paul II have made an impact on this argument?

Nicholson: As head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II has placed religious freedom front and center as the foundation of all other human rights.

From his first address to the United Nations in 1979 to today, [he] has shown how respect for the dignity of mankind demands respect for the essential right of conscience of every man and woman on earth.

The Pope has also been willing to stand up to governments who have restricted religious freedom, and in this way made great contributions to the broader advance of freedom throughout the world, particularly with the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Finally, he continues to encourage the dialogue and respect among peoples of differing religions that is essential to the broader spread of religious freedom.

Q: During his 1987 visit to the United States, Pope John Paul spoke to President Ronald Reagan about the history of freedom that the U.S. has. He said in his Miami speech on September 10 then, that «From the beginning of America, freedom was directed to forming a well-ordered society and to promoting its peaceful life. Freedom was channeled to the fullness of human life, to the preservation of human dignity and to the safeguarding of all human rights.» Would you agree with these words of the Pope? How do you feel that the U.S. can assist the world based on their experience of religious freedom? How can the U.S. work together with the Holy See to promote religious freedom?

Nicholson: America was founded, in significant measure, by persons fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom — people seeking a haven where they could live out their faith without fear of government interference or reprisal.

America’s impulse to protect religious freedom is born of our history, as the Pope noted; is strengthened by our resolve to advance fundamental human rights for people everywhere.

It remains a central tenet of our domestic life and our foreign policy. The example of an America where people of all faiths can live peacefully together remains a great sign of hope for peace and understanding in places where these qualities are lacking.

The U.S. will continue to work together with the Holy See to promote religious freedom through our dialogue on individual countries of concern, conferences such as this one, and our voices in international for a on behalf of tolerance and respect for religious beliefs.

Q: There are quite an array of specialized speakers, could you please tell us on what basis they were selected?

Nicholson: All of the speakers addressing our conference bring a great deal of experience and expertise on the issue.

Some, such as Reverend Bernardo Cervellera, a leading expert on the subject of religious freedom in China, offer regional expertise. As the director of AsiaNews, he is constantly addressing the issue and raising awareness.

Others, such as Mr. Joseph Gieboski and Mr. Attilio Tamburrini can give us insight into how American and Italian non-governmental organizations are taking on the issue of religious freedom. They will enlighten us on strategies and methods they have found effective in their different environments.

Father Daniel Madigan is an expert in Islam, and as pro-president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Gregorian …, has been a world leader in dialogue and understanding between the faiths. There is no better expert on religious freedom issues as they relate to the Holy Land than Father David Jaeger.

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