International meeting chips away at religious persecution

Persecution and discrimination based on religious beliefs are still widespread across the globe. But they are increasingly being addressed in international and regional covenants, in third-world constitutions guaranteeing freedom of religious choice , and in highly orchestrated political statements condemning prejudice based on beliefs.

However, in some places, these are merely rights on paper or in oratory and not really put into practice.

Advocates of religious freedom say greater commitment to human rights on the part of churches, stronger affirmation of the ''rule of law'' by governments, and more specific enforcement mechanisms to encourage the honoring of religious choice are needed.

This was the message of leaders of the second World Congress on Religious Liberty, which met here this week (Sept. 3 to 6).

Sponsored by the International Religious Liberty Association and other groups pushing for freedom of religion and separation of church and state, the congress drew several dozen religious and political leaders from 42 nations, representing every continent.

Speakers - among them Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu - stressed that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right that is basic for lasting world peace.

Roland Hegstad, editor of the United States-based Liberty magazine, pointed out that ''religious liberty'' is ''not simply respecting another person's religion but respecting the right to practice, or not to practice, religion which we may agree or disagree with.''

Bishop Jan Schotte, vice-president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace - representing Pope John Paul II - cautioned that there exists ''a great difference between the formulation of human rights and their judicial sanctions on the one hand . . . and on the other their practical application, as manifested in rules and regulations imposed by state authorities, in bureaucratic controls invented to curtail the liberties of believers.''

Kurt Herndl, assistant secretary-general for human rights of the United Nations, reported that his committee has been besieged with petitions from those alleging violations of religious rights.

Seventy-seven nations are now party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which speaks to guarantees of ''freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.''

Although it lacks the strength of legal enforcement tools, Dr. Herndl's committee brings violations to the public forum. It recently brought to the surface a case involving the right of parents to provide a moral and religious education for their children in harmony with their own convictions.

In further efforts to foster religious liberty, the United Nations is sponsoring studies to gather more data on religious prejudice against minorities and to identify ''root causes'' of intolerance relating to religion or beliefs. The UN Secretary-General is also organizing a seminar for December to discuss educational programs to foster religious tolerance.

Major church conclaves, including the World Council of Churches' assembly, the Baptist World Congress, and the Second Vatican Council, have identified religious freedom as a fundamental human right. And human rights treaties - such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Declaration and Convention on Human Rights, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms - make specific references to religious liberty.

However, Lynn Robert Buzzard, executive director of the Christian Legal Society - whose major interest is in the nexus between religion and law - says political pressures from the Soviet bloc and Muslim world have made these religous-liberty declarations a ''dead letter'' in many nations.

Lack of effective enforcement of such documents, including few provisions for individual petitions, weakens their value, Mr. Buzzard insists. He points out that ''in the case of the European convention's human rights commission, only 18 cases have been brought by states, whereas about 10,000 complaints have been brought by individuals.''

Members of this World Congress on Religious Liberty sharply criticized religious persecutions and confrontations involving freedom of beliefs in the Soviet Union, Iran, Ireland, and parts of Africa. The United States came under sharp verbal attack for what civil-liberties lawyer Jeremiah Guttman called a ''politically motivated'' trend to mix religion and politics.

Mr. Guttman singled out current efforts in the US courts to outlaw or restrict ''legally unpopular religious organizations like the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas.''

Others here criticized the injection of ''religious'' issues, including school prayer, abortion, and public aid to parochial schools, into the current presidential campaign in the United States.

Some delegates called for a more active role of churches around the world in human rights and peace efforts.

Fernando Volio, former prime minister of Costa Rica and constitutional law professor, stressed that religious rights can flourish only in a broader atmosphere of political freedom.

''Freedom is the very oxygen of religious life,'' Dr. Volio said.

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