Activists Fight Battle for Religious Liberty All over the World

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Activists Fight Battle for Religious Liberty All over the World


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Religious liberty has become a global crusade of the 1990s.

While political freedom has blossomed in the post-Cold War world, new restrictions on religion - from city ordinances in the United States to sectarian violence abroad - have increased, a growing alliance of activists say.

The new enemies of religious liberty: nationalism, growing bureaucracies, resurgent Islam, holdout former Communist states and a backlash against the rise of pluralism in a growing number of countries around the globe.

Washington is getting a taste of the popular pull of the movement as two dozen bands stage a pair of huge concerts yesterday and today at RFK Stadium to protest Chinese oppression of political and religious freedom in Tibet.

What unites this new chorus of voices defending religious rights, from the U.S. Congress to human rights activists and scholars of law and religion, is an effort to place the violations against freedom of faith, from the most minor to the most egregious, on one continuum of liberty.

"You could find people of almost any religion in the world who are being persecuted today," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, testified in House hearings on the issue last month.

New global freedoms have led to clashes involving old religious rivals and new proselytizers, said John Witte, director of Emory University's law and religion program.

"It is one of the bitter fruits of the religious liberty revolution around the world," he said.

Later this month, Mr. Witte will convene a Washington forum on "the problem of proselytizing in the new world order," part of a three-year, problem-solving project.

Religious freedom also has been at the heart of several recent legislative battles on Capitol Hill.

To address such human rights violations abroad, the House has passed and the Senate is considering a bill that would require the Clinton administration to impose economic sanctions on nations that persecute believers.

On the domestic front, Republicans Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah last week introduced a bill to re-establish the protections for religious groups against burdens imposed by state and local government regulation - reviving a 1993 law struck down by the Supreme Court just last year.

Such is the broad and diverse scope of the new interest in religious liberty, said Winston Frost, dean of Trinity Law School.

"In America, religious freedom is about accommodation to menorahs and creches and discussions in public schools," he said. "Elsewhere in the world, it means giving your life for what you believe."

Nearly every nation pays homage in its constitution to freedom of conscience and belief, and most have signed the postwar Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"What our battle is about is to promote the reality of religious freedom as opposed to amending constitutions," said Bruce Casino, president of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. He said the tension between those promises of freedom and a regime's need to keep "public order" is central to the loss of liberty. In this sense, he said, Greece's constitution is more honest than most.

It says that "all known religions shall be free" to worship, but that religions are "not allowed to offend public order or moral principles [and] proselytization is prohibited."

The primacy of public order now is being evoked by increasing numbers of government authorities even in the developed democracies of Western Europe, said Jurgen Warnke, a Frankfurt lawyer with the International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief.

He cited an Austrian law passed in December that creates three tiers of legality, excluding such well-known denominations as Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses from some social privileges and relegating newer faiths, from Scientology to Hare Krishna, to private worship alone. …

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