Combating Abuses of Religious Human Rights Clerics, Politicians, Activists Discuss `Golden Rules' of Religious Liberty

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THE "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims in Bosnia. Clashes between Sikhs and Hindus in India. The bitter strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. And in the United States, the denial of permission for Jews to build synagogues or Muslims to construct mosques in some neighborhoods.

From one corner of the globe to another, religious worshipers are being killed, tortured, dislocated, or denied liberties because of their beliefs.

Although religious-rights abuses have occurred throughout the centuries, some scholars say they have reached new pinnacles in the world today despite the crumbling in the past decade of many authoritarian regimes that repressed religious believers. At the same time, there is a growing recognition among religious followers that religious human rights are not taken seriously by the international community.

"The human-rights revolution is passing religion by," says John Witte, Jr., director of the law and religion program at Emory University in Atlanta, and co-organizer of a recent international conference here on religious human rights that drew clerics, politicians, academics, and activists from many faiths.

"Religious human rights are integral to the advancement of all other human rights because of their intimate grounding in the nature and sacredness of the human person," said James Wood, Jr., director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who addressed the conference. They include, he said, "the inherent right of a person in public or in private to worship or not worship according to one's own conscience, understanding, or preferences; to profess and to propagate one's faith; to join in association with others of like faith; and to change one's religious identity - all without hindrance, molestation, or discrimination."

Why are religious rights being bypassed when religion is considered important to so many people?

Professor Witte cites several reasons. Religion, he says, is private, and wrapping it in a discussion of rights or law seems to violate that premise. Also, people of different faiths often can't agree on what rights should be enjoyed. For example, many Christians believe in the right to proselytize, while many Jews think proselytizing is anathema. "You can go through example after example where you see questions of rights protection for religious groups to be the nerve center of conflict . …


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