- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

In this season of religious holidays, millions of Americans enjoy not just the spirit of the season but also the freedom to celebrate and worship without fear of recrimination. Throughout December, Americans will attend special religious services in churches, synagogues and mosques, each according to the dictates of their own conscience and belief.

Religious liberty holds an enduring place in the hearts and souls of Americans, both because of our past heritage and our present convictions. It began in 1620, when a band of Pilgrim dissidents fled persecution in England to sail in search of hope and freedom in a new world. Compelled only by conviction, they sought that most basic and deeply personal of freedoms: religious liberty. These Pilgrims have been followed over the centuries by countless others from across the world who have come to America in search of the freedom to practice their beliefs.

Viewed by our Founders as a bedrock human right, it was by design that religious freedom became the first freedom in our Bill of Rights. While our historical record is admittedly far from perfect, we have always affirmed that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

However, we must remember religious freedom is not a uniquely American value. Over the past half-century, it has been internationally recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Yet while Americans freely engage in religious celebrations this season (or freely choose not to), such is not the case for many around the world.

Even a cursory glance around the globe reveals appalling religious persecution. Many face arrest, torture, imprisonment, or other harsh violations of their right to follow their beliefs. Many Christians in Saudi Arabia will celebrate Christmas in fear of harassment and behind closed doors, because public non-Muslim worship is prohibited. Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican worship in secret, at risk of beatings and imprisonment, while numerous Tibetan Buddhist leaders are severely repressed.

Some Muslims in Burma face religious persecution. Incidents of anti-Semitism have occurred in several European countries. In Vietnam, Buddhist leaders languish under house arrest, while authorities pressure rural Protestants to renounce their faith. Baha’is are systematically discriminated against in Iran, as are all religious minorities in Turkmenistan.

Unfortunately, the list goes on. These examples and many others are found in the U.S. State Department’s 2003 International Religious Freedom Report, an annual accounting of religious freedom around the world, released last week. The entire report can be found at www.state.gov.

But we don’t stop at reporting on abuses. The United States is determined to combat religious persecution wherever people are imprisoned, tortured, beaten or otherwise suffer for their faith. This is a part of our nation’s work in the world of which we all can be proud. It is an endeavor that earns Americans good will across the globe.

During my travels overseas, I often am thanked by believers for the special attention our government devotes to their plight. This inspires them — and encourages us to persevere in our efforts to help those who suffer for their faith. We do this because it is the right thing to do. But we also do so because societies that respect human rights generally are at peace with themselves and their neighbors; they are stable and govern through the rule of law.

“I beg you will be persuaded,” George Washington implored, “that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against… every species of religious persecution.” This is a conviction animating our nation since its Founding. As President Bush said in his State of the Union address, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, but God’s gift to humanity.”

This holiday season, may we all join together in reaffirming our gratitude for our own religious freedoms, and in rededicating ourselves to helping those who continue to seek them.

John V. Hanford III is ambassador at large for international religious freedom for the U.S. State Department.

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