US Might Turn Blind Eye to Religious Freedom

While Christians Suffer More Persecution Than Any Other Faith

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By Edward Pentin 

ROME, DEC. 8, 2011 ( Christians have become the most persecuted followers of any religion in the world today, according to participants at a recent conference in Moscow. Yet the U.S. government appears to be scaling back its work to safeguard this crucial human right.

The International Conference on the Freedom of Religion and Discrimination against Christians, which took place earlier this month and brought together representatives of Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic communities and international religious experts, warned that the faith risks vanishing completely in parts of the world as a consequence.

The conference heard that about 100 million Christians worldwide are suffering persecution and thousands die in religious conflicts. Metropolitan Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s Foreign Relations Department, said the largest number affected live in Africa and the Middle East.

The participants attributed two main reasons to the increase in attacks: the loss of Christian roots and European secularism where secular authorities are increasingly marginalizing religion from public life; and Islamic radicalism, exacerbated by aggressive missionary work by representatives of different non-Christian sects, and distortions of Christian teaching.

Interestingly, it took a Muslim participant to highlight the role that politics also plays in igniting clashes between religions, according to the Web site Mufti Mohammedgali Khuzin, of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord, noted that the two major religious conflicts of today are between Muslims and Jews and between Muslims and Christians. «Instigated by third parties, these conflicts yield a lot of benefit for the secular consumer society, which cashes in fabulously on them,» he said. 

It was within this context that the head of an influential commission in the United States that monitors violations of religious freedom worldwide addressed parliamentarians in London and Brussels last week. 

Leonard Leo, president of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), visited the European and British parliaments as a guest of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity). He warned a group of British peers Nov. 30 that in view of Christians facing increasing persecution and marginalization worldwide, governments must «respond robustly» to safeguard religious liberty. 

Addressing the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Dignity, who included the veteran human rights campaigners Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Cox, Leo recalled Pope Benedict XVI’s frequent appeals to uphold this basic right. The Holy Father has said «the right to religious freedom should be viewed as innate to the fundamental dignity of every human person — it is crucial to the common good of society,» Leo recalled.

«It has therefore been a great honor to speak here in the U.K. Parliament and address this important issue at this time,» he continued. «The USCIRF is the world’s only independent governmental body fully devoted to advancing this fundamental human right, serving as a voice for the voiceless in countries where religious freedom is not respected.»

Responding to his speech, Lord Alton who chairs the working group, drew attention to a recent report by the charity Aid to the Church in Need which showed that 75% of religious persecution is against Christians, mostly in the Islamic world. He also noted the growing marginalization of Christians in the West. 

«In Britain, Christians face a double threat,» he explained. «Firstly, radical secularism that has forced the Catholic Church to curtail some of its valuable services to society, and secondly a growing radical Islam that is leading to the creation of parallel Sharia laws. This so-called Sharia Creep is out to exploit the weaknesses of our value system, increasing the chances of extremist violence.»

All of this shows that the USCIRF is «needed more now than perhaps at any other time in its history,» Lord Alton said. 

At Leo’s meeting in the European Parliament on Nov. 29, Nirj Deva MEP, President of the International Committee on Human Dignity, described the USCIRF chief as «one of the most prominent campaigners for the promotion of religious liberty in the world today.» The organization, he added, played a «pivotal role in ensuring that the United States rises to the hopes of millions of oppressed people around the world, by keeping the issue of human rights firmly at the core of US foreign policy.»

Leo said the challenge of advancing religious freedom across the globe «is insurmountable for any one organisation.  Thus, there is an increasing need for ever greater cooperation between peoples towards a better coordinated and targeted action.»  

The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. Its Commissioners are appointed by the U.S. president and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF’s principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

But despite its irreplaceable value, the organization may well be shut down on Dec. 16. Two continuing congressional resolutions had temporarily extended its life which had been threatened by budget cuts. But now a re-authorization bill has had a «hold» placed on it by Senate majority whip, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), according to CNS News. 

This means it is increasingly unlikely that USCIRF’s life will be extended beyond Dec. 16. The Government Services Administration has notified the Commission that it must take steps to prepare for closure of the agency. 

News of USCIRF’s possible closure comes as the Vatican’s «foreign minister,» Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, called for an international day against persecution of Christians. He told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Dec. 7 that there may be 200 million Christians, of different confessions, «who are in difficulty because of legal and cultural structures that lead to their discrimination.» For this reason, he proposed the institution of an International Day against persecution and discrimination of Christians as «an important sign that governments are willing to deal with this serious issue.»

«In view of Archbishop Mamberti’s comments, now is really not the time for a government such as the United States, with its almost unique moral standing of leadership on world stage, to be scaling back its commitment to defending those who are persecuted for their faith,» said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Institute for Human Dignity.

To ensure the agency continues its highly valued work, readers are encouraged to write to their members of Congress.

Edward Pentin is Communications Director for the Institute for Human Dignity.

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