Religion and foreign affairs

Religion has become a significant factor in international relations, but the American view of the role of religion contrasts sharply with that in much of the rest of the world.

In many areas today, religion forms the backdrop of conflict:

*In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics still labor to find a peaceful solution to an old conflict while acts of violence continue.

*In the Balkans, Croatian Catholics, Serb Orthodox Christians, and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims struggle for a place in a troubled region.

*In Indonesia, Muslims burn Christian churches and Christians retaliate.

*The Bharatiya Janata Party in India, before its recent fall, pressed for Hindu dominance, sparking extremists in Indian states to attack Christian churches and mosques.

*In Pakistan, Christians have been harassed by Muslim mobs.

It's hard for those Americans who equate religion with peace to understand this violence. In much of the world, however, religion is the core of personal and national identity. Conflicts are rarely over religious issues; they are battles for political power, prestige, and economic advantage. Such conflicts are especially bitter when economic conditions deteriorate, as in Indonesia, and religiously identified groups struggle for opportunities, land, and jobs. Religious struggles combined with nationalism can threaten the stability and peace of whole regions.

During the effort to resolve the conflict in Bosnia, mediators brought together leaders of Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish groups. Fearing to meet in Sarajevo, they assembled in Vienna where they signed a joint statement endorsing peace. This statement was discussed at a conference last year at Georgetown University. A nongovernmental organization representative who worked in Bosnia commented that the declaration was fine, but it had little meaning at the local level where nationalist parish priests kept the conflict alive. He told of seeing, in the office of one priest, a photograph of the pope; painted across the Pope's arms was the image of a Kalashnikov rifle.

The principle of freedom to practice one's faith is deeply ingrained in American history; one of Thomas Jefferson's proudest achievements was his Virginia bill to establish religious freedom. Following in this tradition, Congress last year passed the International Religious Freedom Act authorizing sanctions against countries that deny religious freedom. The act represents another expression of core US principles and the desire to establish these principles in other lands. It is noble in intention. But, in implementing it, the US will encounter the other concept of religion, the political concept.

In passing the act, many in Congress had China in mind, focusing on the suppression of Tibetan Buddhism, the closing of unofficial Christian churches, and actions against Muslims. But China sees the independent practice of religion as a threat to the cohesion and stability of the communist state. It is doubtful that even the threat of sanctions called for in the act would cause China to pull back from its present policies.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on which part of the act is based speaks of the right to change religion or belief. But, in societies such as India, missionary efforts to convert are seen as undermining the fabric of a religious community. US support for such activities would be seen in many countries as interference in internal affairs. It is questionable whether most missionaries who have traditionally sought to avoid close identification with US embassies would welcome such interventions.

Expressions of faith are the most personal of human activities. It is true to the ideals of the US to espouse the right freely to express one's faith. In pursuing this ideal as a foreign policy objective, the US should recognize the contrasting concepts between religion as an individual faith and as the basis of a community's identity.

*David D. Newsom, a former US ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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