“Today’s hearing is especially timely given the rise in religious extremism and increased restrictions on religious freedom worldwide,” said Thomas J. Reese, S.J., chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, addressing the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission May 24. The full text of his testimony is available on the Commission website.
He began with an overview of why religion matters:
Religion and religious freedom are important, especially in today’s world. In fact, religion is a central factor in many of the major foreign policy issues of the day, and violations of the freedom of religion or belief are a source of instability in nations worldwide. The freedom of religion or belief is a broad, inclusive right that embraces the full range of thought, belief, and behavior. It is a conscience right which is not limited to the right to practice a particular religion. At its heart, it is the right to respond to the dictates of one’s own conscience on matters of faith and belief, wherever that may lead, so long as the rights of others and essential principles of public order are respected. Thus, because freedom of religion involves freedom of conscience, it must include the right to a belief or belief system that differs from the majority or not to believe at all. Responding to the call of conscience is both a right and a duty. It is a right because human authenticity and integrity demand that people be allowed to live on the outside what they truly are on the inside. It is a duty because once people believe something to be true, they have an obligation to act and live peacefully in accordance with that belief.
No government, group, or individual has the right to compel others to act against their conscience or restrain them from answering its call. Religious freedom applies to the holders of all religious beliefs and extends to those who reject religious beliefs altogether, and was overwhelmingly adopted in 1948 in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in subsequent international agreements.
As will be highlighted during this hearing, 84% of the world’s population identifies with a specific religious group, and, according to the most recent Pew Research Center study on religious restrictions and hostilities—and as we will hear more about at this hearing—in more than a quarter of the world’s countries, in which more than three-quarters of the world’s population live, religion is restricted significantly, either by the government or societal actors. Given the centrality of religion to most people’s lives, it is no wonder that freedom of religion or belief matters to many people. It is also no wonder that freely practiced religion is feared by authoritarian governments and societal actors as a competitor, an alternate source of authority which could challenge their control. Manipulation or distortion of religion also can fuel dangerous conflicts between groups or individuals who hold different beliefs. In both instances, our nation and its diplomats cannot have productive dialogues and satisfactory relations or outcomes if we ignore, downplay, or dismiss religion’s pivotal role.
Rev. Reese presents the Commission’s recommendations for nations that should continue to be on the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) and those they recommend adding to the list due to their increased religious repression, which he covers in detail.
The conclusion of his testimony:
We face an enormously challenging landscape for freedom of religion or belief abroad. We can and will see constructive change by improving our use of existing tools and creating new tools for a rapidly changing environment. By further integrating this fundamental freedom into our nation’s foreign policy, and by continuing to work with like-minded governments and parliamentarians, we can bring genuine progress to those who yearn for freedom.