Religious Freedom and Human Rights

I recently told you about the plight of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa. What I called a “wave of anti-Christian violence” has left dozens of people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Well, according to recent reports, the “wave” has taken a sinister new turn — a reminder of the precarious state of religious freedom around the world.

According to Christian groups working in the area, Christian leaders, in particular, pastors, “carry a price on their heads.” The “going price” being offered by Hindu militants to “kill a pastor is $250.” If a person isn’t willing to go that far, he can receive “foreign liquor, chicken, mutton and weapons” for destroying Christian property and churches.

While extremist Hindu groups deny this particular charge, there’s no denying that Christians in Orissa are the victims of persecution. Nor is there any denying that anti-Christian violence is taking place around the world. For example, Iraq’s Christian population is being driven out of its ancestral home as its Muslim neighbors jockey for influence in post-Saddam Iraq.

Yet while the world becomes increasingly scrupulous to all sorts of rights, including the “rights” of animals and even plants (I’m not kidding), it largely ignores the ongoing assault on the most fundamental human right: religious freedom, freedom of conscience.

So while commentators were consumed with the results of California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage, they missed what was going at a special assembly of the UN. There, Islamic nations led by Saudi Arabia made progress toward criminalizing blasphemy.

While the declaration urging “respect” for religion, places of worship, and symbols sounds good, Donald Argue and Leonard Leo remind us that appearances are deceiving. These members of the Commission on International Religious Freedom called the declaration a “cleverly coded way of granting religious leaders the right to criminalize speech and activities that they deem to insult religion”-say, like prohibiting conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Given Saudi Arabia’s role in promoting the declaration and the regime’s abysmal record concerning religious freedom, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. It’s difficult to imagine the Saudis making it easier for individuals to convert to and practice Christianity in their and other Islamic countries.

What Saudi clerics and Hindu activists call “respect” is more properly called “religious persecution.” This confusion is the result of what scholar Thomas Farr describes as the failure “to advance religious freedom in any political or cultural sense” around the world.

What’s needed, as Farr writes in his new book World of Faith and Freedom, is the message that religious freedom is a “precondition for stable self-government.” Government doesn’t give it; government can’t take it away. It “lies at the heart of human dignity” because it recognizes that there are areas where government has no place intruding.

The UN, as so often happens, pretends to defend human rights all the while doing the opposite. The price of freedom, we are reminded, is vigilance — and outrage expressed in cases like this.

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