Holy Week, holy terror: We must do more to promote religious liberty

Sunday, March 31, 2002

Americans take for granted the freedom to celebrate (or not to celebrate) Passover and Easter. But for millions of believers around the world, Holy Week has been a time of unholy terror.

Churches re-enact the Stations of the Cross at a time when many Christians must themselves take up the Cross. Worship services are attacked in Pakistan and India, believers are jailed in China, Armenia and Saudi Arabia, Pentecostals are arrested and expelled from Belgium, and Christians are beheaded in the Philippines.

Jews re-live the story of enslavement in Egypt at the Passover meal at a time when many Israeli parents worry if their children will return home safely each night. This year Passover was marked by the murder of 22 innocent people by yet another suicide bomber. A seemingly endless cycle of violence threatens the very existence of Israel.

Of course, violence and persecution isn’t confined to Christians and Jews. Government actions in India contribute to outbreaks of violence between Muslims and Hindus. Buddhists and other religious adherents are tortured and persecuted in North Korea. The tragic list goes on and on. (For a full update, visit the nonpartisan Human Rights Without Frontiers.)

Meanwhile Holy Week in the United States this year is much like every other year. It’s a time when millions of people worship openly and freely without governmental interference. And this in the most religiously diverse nation in the world.

Sure, we sue one another over everything from vouchers to the posting of the Ten Commandments. And, yes, we’re plagued with incidents of anti-Semitism, outbreaks of violence against American Muslims, and other forms of religious intolerance practiced by a hateful minority of our citizens. But despite these challenges, America remains remarkably free of “holy wars” – the most successful example of building one society out of many peoples and faiths in human history.

Clearly the First Amendment serves us well. Americans may disagree around the edges of what it means to separate church from state, but fortunately we mostly agree that we don’t want government involvement in religion – and we mostly agree that religious bigotry or persecution has no place in our society.

Consider the poll released March 20 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. By a large majority (70%), Americans don’t want churches (or other religious institutions) to endorse candidates for public office. And most of us (79%) don’t want the government starting programs aimed at encouraging marriage. (Some lawmakers are currently pushing both ideas on Capitol Hill.) We’re resistant to efforts aimed at entangling religion and government.

The poll also confirms that many Americans remain strongly religious (40% go to worship services at least once a week and 87% think that religion is important in their lives). But at the same time, an overwhelming majority (84%) of us believe that a person can be a good American even if he or she doesn’t have religious faith.

Moreover, most Americans have a positive opinion of faiths other than their own (75% agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life”). Catholics, Protestants and Jews are viewed favorably by 74% of us. And even after all of the confusion and ignorance about Islam in the wake of Sept. 11, most Americans (54%) have a favorable view of American Muslims. (See complete Pew poll results.)

What’s the message here?

Religious freedom works. But we can’t take it for granted. We must do more – at home and abroad – to uphold the principles of religious liberty in a world torn by sectarian violence and religious persecution.

This is a time of darkness for millions of suffering people. But for Jews, the story of Exodus doesn’t end in the wilderness, but in the Promised Land. And for Christians, Good Friday leads to Easter Sunday.

Ultimately, hope and freedom triumph over death and destruction.

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