Combating abuses of religious human rights

Clerics, politicians, activists discuss `golden rules' of religious liberty

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 ... and why compromise the human-rights agenda with all those messy problems?'' he says. Finally, religious groups have been fairly parochial in their concern for religious rights until a few years ago.

``They're interested in protecting their own people, but the notion that we have to develop golden rules of religious liberty - treating everyone in a manner we would like to have ourselves treated as a religious people - is something that's only recently caught on,'' he says.

The difficulty of developing a golden rule for everybody was illustrated in the final session of the conference. A draft model law on freedom of religion was distributed. The individuals who authored it have been working on it since 1979.

In the introduction, it says it provides model legislation on freedom of religion based on international human-rights standards and the findings of the United Nations special rapporteur on religious intolerance. But it drew criticism from some conference participants, particularly from a Muslim from Africa, who felt it was too Western and didn't represent his religion.

``The wider you broaden the definition of religion, the wider you open the door to issues of such profound difference,'' Witte says. ``It signals to me how profoundly difficult it's going to be to marshal resources from any one pocket of discourse, or any one community ... to deal with these problems. The temptation is simply to despair.... It is impossible for us to cast in human language mechanisms that would describe these diverse phenomenons of religious rights violations.''

At the same time he says: ``We have struck a need in this conference in ways we hadn't anticipated. Everybody has confirmed the need for much more concerted academic reflection on religious-rights discourse.''

Those religious traditions that want to be part of the discussion on human rights ``are going to have to formulate out of their own traditions a concept of rights that explains and guides the things we like about democratic society and does it better than secularists do,'' says David Novak, Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. ``Therefore it is important that there be interchange and people understand what the problems are.

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