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World Congress reflections: Discrimination and the persecutory impulse

Gregory W. Hamilton, president of the US-based Northwest Religious Liberty Association, reflects on his experiences at the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom.

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, April 26 … The persecutory impulse is alive and well in many societies throughout the world. This has been made forcefully and eloquently clear during this Congress, despite the many progress reports of many countries represented at this quadrennial event.

Brigham Young University Professor W. Cole Durham, Jr., reminded us that between 70 and 76 percent of the world’s population are experiencing persecution. Religious freedom and human rights is not advancing. While small and major religious freedom and human rights advances are being made in key countries and regions, and often accompanied with democratic reform, these values appear to be regressing at a fairly rapid rate.
As Seventh-day Adventist World Church President, Ted Wilson, eloquently pointed out on Thursday, this so-called persecutory impulse emanates from both those with secular and theocratic world views – those who seek to be “free from religion” and those who seek to “enforce religion” (that is, from a shared sense of ecumenical and community values) in the public square. This struggle is not new to the history of public policy.

It was former Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who recently stated in a speech at the University of Dublin in Ireland, that "The religious zealot and the theocrat frighten us in part because we understand only too well their basic impulse. No less frightening is the totalitarian atheist who aspires to a society in which the exercise of religion has no place."

But what has been only hedged at, is that the seeds of persecution are often sown through subtle acts of discrimination perpetrated both officially and unofficially over a gradual period of time on an unsuspecting and apathetic people at large, and particularly on religious minorities and other subsets of marginalized classes of peoples and ethnic groups, and many times in the name of “reform.” This has been true in most all societies throughout history, and continues to be true today.
Who can forget the gradual progression of discrimination laws enacted by the Wehrmacht and Hitler that systematically led to the Holocaust of over six million Jews prior to the outbreak of WWII? Visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., brings this fact into horrific relief.

It is not my intent to demean particular countries, or those who represented them at this extremely beneficial World Congress on Religious Freedom and Human Rights. Suffice it to say, however, it is important to highlight a persistent and problematic standard that falls consistently short of both the spirit and letter of the international Article 18 standard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which otherwise peaceful and law abiding religious peoples are singled out for disapproval and discriminatory treatment because they are viewed as a competitive threat by the predominant religion(s) of the land.

This can be seen in Honduras, for example. When conversing at length over lunch on Wednesday with Carlos Portillo and Lizeth Aguilar, recent former Minister and Vice-Ministers of Religious Affairs for the Republic of Honduras (January 27, 2010 – April 17, 2012), they shared how both the recent and much needed political and moral reforms taking place in their country—which has been brought about through a strong ecumenical coalition of Evangelical Protestants and Catholics—has marginalized certain religious minorities, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Seen as a threatening competitive religion, Seventh-day Adventists have been having difficulty procuring licenses to build more churches as they grow. This is a classic and persistent historic example of how united religious powers can and often marginalize and discriminate against emerging religious bodies whom are seen as a threat, when clearly they could just as easily be seen as a force for good.

In Brazil, Attorney Damaris Dias Moura Kuo gave a glowing report of her country’s progress, and deservedly so. Brazil has come a long ways toward religious freedom and human rights reforms, where the dominant Catholic Church has recognized the need to accommodate and work with a rapidly growing Protestant and Pentecostal movement, as in every country in Central and South America. But Ms. Kuo repeatedly stated that her country takes great pains to “respect” and “consider” the rights of all religions under Brazil’s Constitution. When I asked her to clarify what she meant in a brief interview she said that their country reserves the right to presume that certain religious faiths may not be healthy for the common good of the country. Her inference, though not stated, was toward terrorists carrying out acts of violence in the name of religion, and that is understandable. But when asked if that unofficial standard included religions that may be viewed as a competitive threat, she hedged, and through the translator, stated that it could, but not necessarily.

These are just a few examples. Other examples were replete throughout the Congress. Liviu Olteanu highlighted the ongoing problems in Romania, and when asked by Andrews University Professor Nicholas Miller how it was that Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, squared with the rising religious persecution and killing of Christians, Judge Amjad Shammout, who serves as President of the Arab Bridge Center for Development and Human Rights in Jordan, responded by arguing that Christians have more rights and religious freedom protections in the Middle East than in Western countries, both currently and historically. It was an amazing response, to say the least.
Surprisingly, as Andrews University Professor Nicholas Miller, pointed out on Wednesday, a recent trend toward discrimination is also happening in the United States of America where corporate rights—both religious and secular—are increasingly being upheld by the courts in unprecedented ways at the expense of hard fought individual and civil rights.

This ensuing competitive struggle is a dangerous development that prepares the way for increased discrimination by corporations and corresponding governmental acquiescence. This shift from individualism toward communitarian (i.e., what is good for the whole community is good for the individual) and corporate rights is a church-state model that dates back to the Holy Roman Empire in which the Church determined what was right for the state, society, and individuals. This may be a premature assessment in terms of where the United States may be trending, but it is a development to watch—particularly after the recent Citizens United and Hosanna-Tabor decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The debate over contraception rights in light of the religious freedom discrimination claims being cited by religious authorities—and largely by the Catholic Church—over Congress’s health care insurance mandate, is only one developmental example to watch in regard to such corresponding trends, said Miller.

In conclusion, it has often been said that as the United States rises and falls in its standards of upholding the equal constitutional guarantee of religious freedom and human rights for all, so goes the rest of the world. This remains a reliable truism where in the United States we have the privilege of championing both at the highest levels and standards throughout the world.

But it seems clear that as other countries are emerging in economic strength and political influence—such as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, etc.—the world community will need to depend on a host of international champions of religious freedom and human rights.

Could it be that the universal values of religious freedom and human rights are fading just as fast as the rate of religious persecution is rising throughout the world? As stated at the beginning of this article, those numbers are 70-76 percent!
Is it possible, as Dr. Robert Seiple argued during the opening Plenary Session on Tuesday, that the western world, and all other international champions of religious freedom and human rights, have relaxed the concept that it is the equal constitutional guarantee of religious freedom for all that should once again be championed and not the secular and interfaith influence of ecumenism which fronts for a return to the lower standard of “religious tolerance”—a standard that reserves the right to subtly and systematically discriminate against religious minorities that the religious and political majority disagrees with?

In my thinking, that is the ultimate question that emerged from this vitally important World Congress.