Religious Freedom Pivotal for Rights, Panel Is Told

U.S. Bishop Says 2 Trends Need More Attention

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WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 17, 2005 ( The cause of religious liberty must be a fundamental priority of U.S. foreign policy, a prelate representing the U.S. bishops’ conference told a federal panel.

«From the perspective of Catholic teaching, religious freedom is the first of our freedoms,» said Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, on Tuesday in testimony before the U.S. House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations.

«Religious freedom covers a broad range of vital activities, from freedom of worship to freedom of conscience, from the right to establish schools and charities to the right to participate in and seek to influence public affairs,» Bishop Ramirez said.

The 69-year-old prelate, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, testified as a member of the episcopal conference’s International Policy Committee.

He described two «broad trends,» or «major challenges,» that he suggested «deserve greater attention,» before highlighting a few specific concerns in individual countries where religious liberty is restricted.

The first challenge Bishop Ramirez described is the relationship between governments and elected officials and «the proper place of religion in public life.»

The second concern, «perhaps the most significant challenge to religious freedom,» he described is the relationship between Christianity and Islam. «This challenge requires careful and deep reflection, respectful dialogue and candid discussion,» he said.

«Authentic dialogue cannot be just vague expressions of good will, empty of a search for truth and unity,» Bishop Ramirez told the subcommittee. «Genuine interreligious dialogue can only be a force to heal divisions if dialogue safeguards and respects the truth in each religion and culture.»

He said the USCCB supports the view of political leaders who have declared that the struggle against terrorism is not a war against Islam.

Countries of concern

Noting the U.S. State Department’s release last week of a status report on religious freedom around the world, Bishop Ramirez highlighted the American prelates’ concerns in several countries:

— Iraq. While commending Iraqi efforts to establish a stable democracy, Bishop Ramirez expressed concerns about provisions in the country’s newly approved constitution. «Some provisions circumscribe religious liberty by not allowing any law to contradict the principles of Islam,» he said.

— Israel. The 1993 Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See was a welcome development, but the failure to conclude negotiations on economic and other issues of importance to the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community in the Holy land is a concern. «We believe the issues between the government of Israel and the Holy See are of great importance for religious liberty, not only for the Catholic Church but for the vitality of all Christian communities within Israel,» Bishop Ramirez said.

— China. State-approved and state-controlled religions in China appear to be freer today that in recent years, but «control over the everyday life of the Church, less intrusive in some places than in others, still represents an unwarranted interference of the state in the life of the Church,» the bishop said.

— India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. «Shameful» attacks on the Christian minority in these countries indicates «that much more can be done to insist that each of these states act with greater conformity with international law and greater respect for religious rights.»

— Burma. The ongoing denial of fundamental human rights merits «consistent and active monitoring,» but the Catholic Church is opposed to economic sanctions.

— Cuba. Parents are unable to choose alternatives to state schools, Catholic dioceses continue to be denied access to major media, religious workers from abroad continue to be denied visas, and state security agents have increasingly attended Masses «with the evident purpose of discouraging any dissident behavior,» Bishop Ramirez said. However, the U.S. bishops remain steadfast in their opposition to the economic embargo against Cuba as counterproductive.

— Russian Federation. «While the Catholic Church has seen some improvements in the last two years,» the prelate said, «the overall situation of human rights remains tenuous, uncertain, and in some was is deteriorating.»

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