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Religious freedom: A human right in danger

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DFID-UK Department For International Development | CC BY 2.0

Miriam Diez Bosch - published on 05/24/18

Violent persecution because of religious belief has become a global emergency.

Religious freedom is under pressure, and in some places, it is even “besieged,” according to Timothy Shah, of Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “The worldwide erosion of religious freedom is causing human suffering on a large scale,” he added, “as well as serious injustices and threats to international peace and security.”

Outside of the West, tens of millions of human beings are “subjected to violent persecution because of their religious beliefs.” In the West as well, religious freedom “is subject to different pressures.”

The Witherspoon Institute’s Task Force on International Religious Freedom has studied these topics for years. In his book Religious Freedom — Why Now? Defending and Embattled Human Right, Shah summarizes the pivotal ideas of religious freedom in 9 points:

  1. Religion is the effort of individuals and communities to understand, express, and seek harmony with a transcendent reality that makes them feel obliged to organize their lives around their understanding of it, to be guided by it in their behavior and to communicate it to others.
  2. The suppression of religious belief, its expression and its practice, goes against human nature and its experience.
  3. Religious freedom as a whole has a variety of intertwined dimensions: intellectual and spiritual, personal, moral, practical, legal, political … All human beings have the right not to be forced to abandon their own religious convictions or to adopt those of others.
  4. Freedom of faith and religious practice is a vital part of another series of freedoms and other social, economic and political goods that enable the existence of stable, just, and free societies.
  5. Religious freedom contributes to a stable political order, to social peace, to the reduction of violence, and to the solidity of democratic institutions.
  6. The repression of religious freedom produces political instability, prevents the growth of civil society, and slows democratic development.
  7. Religious freedom is not just the legacy of a culture or cultures, but a universal principle of justice referring to human experience as such.
  8. Religious freedom is essential for human dignity and integrity.
  9. Freedom of religion has private and public dimensions. It is both the freedom to pray and to give public testimony of beliefs and commitments.

Michael W. McConnell, director of the Center for Constitutional Law at Stanford University, believes that “religious freedom is undergoing an organized attack, as has not happened since the Enlightenment.” He sees this attack “both in academic and legislative texts and in the open persecution we see in many parts of the world.”

In September 2015, Pope Francis said in Philadelphia, “Religious freedom is a fundamental right that shapes our way of interacting socially and personally with our neighbors, who have religious beliefs different from ours.” He went on to say, “Religious freedom, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families … The religious fact, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of any people and of any nation.”

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