Religious liberty threatened worldwide

Sunday, September 14, 1997

India's state funeral yesterday for Mother Teresa of Calcutta
was fitting tribute to a great soul. But it was also ironic. If
she were just arriving in India, the same government that honored
her yesterday would deny Mother Teresa a resident visa.

Since the 1960s, the Indian government has refused to admit new foreign
missionaries as residents. Those arriving today can only stay
for a short period on a tourist visa.

Think of the loss, not only for the thousands of sick and dying
cared for by the Missionaries of Charity in India, but for a nation
in desperate need of a symbol of selfless love and service.

This information about religious liberty in India and in many
other nations throughout the world is contained in a fascinating
report issued by the State Department this summer. Ordered by
Congress, the report focuses primarily on the persecution of Christians,
though other faiths are mentioned.

India actually has one of the better records on religious freedom.
The country's constitution guarantees religious liberty and, despite
the government's concern about foreign missionaries, Indians generally
enjoy the freedom to practice their faith without governmental

In many other places, however, religious practice can be dangerous—even
deadly. Consider the congregation of Egyptian Christians who gathered
to pray in their church last February. Suddenly a band of terrorists
burst through the doors, spraying the sanctuary with bullets.
Nine young Christians were killed instantly. Six more were wounded.

The tragic news didn't startle many people in Egypt. After all,
Coptic Christians there have long suffered persecution and harassment
(sometimes by the government). In recent years, dozens of Christians
have been murdered by extremists who view the Christian faith
as a threat to the “Islamic state” they seek to establish.

The story is much the same in many other nations. Four Baha'is
are in Iranian prisons under death sentences. Mormons in Peru
have been murdered by terrorists. Jehovah's Witnesses have been
arrested and fined in Singapore, where their church is banned.

Behind the chilling litany of persecution in the State Department
report are individual lives threatened and destroyed. This hit
home last May when I spoke on the First Amendment to a gathering
of Catholic journalists from around the world. After my talk,
journalists lined up to tell me what it means to live without
a First Amendment.

Two examples: A reporter from Pakistan told me that he feared
for his livelihood—and sometimes for his life—whenever he wrote
something that might be read as critical of the state religion.
Proselytizing among Muslims in Pakistan is illegal; the penalty
for blasphemy is death.

A Hong Kong journalist was deeply anxious about what would happen
to Roman Catholic churches and schools following the Chinese takeover.
In China, Catholics must register with the government and, in
so doing, renounce the authority of the Pope. Unregistered Catholics
and other Christian groups unwilling to submit to state control
are repressed by the government. Their “house churches”
are often raided and closed, their leaders frequently detained
and beaten.

The State Department report comes in the middle of a bitter national
debate about how the American government should respond to religious
persecution in the world. On one side, many evangelical Christians,
among others, are demanding that U.S. trade policy and diplomatic
efforts reflect a greater commitment to promoting religious liberty.
They would, for example, withhold “most favored nation”
status from China in our trade relations. Other voices, including
many in the Clinton administration, argue that economic sanctions
rarely work. In this view, the best way to effect change in places
like China is through economic engagement and quiet diplomacy.

Whatever the strategy, there is strong agreement on all sides
that the United States must stand boldly for religious liberty
in a world torn by religious strife and oppression. When she released
the State Department report, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
reminded us of what is at stake by quoting a warning from Thomas
Jefferson: “It behooves all who value liberty of conscience
for themselves to resist invasions of it in the case of others;
or that case may, by change of circumstance, become their own.”