Al-Ahram, October 22, 1999

[Note, Al-Ahram (The Pyramids) is one of Cairo's two top newspapers, with about one million readers.]

Exploitation of religion in international relations is not new in human history. Whether created by man or inspired by God [the so-called "heavenly religions" considered by Muslims to be Judaism, Christianity and Islam], religions have been the basis of many of the world's alliances, wars and international organizations.

A recent development in human history is dialogue between the three heavenly religions and cooperation among their representatives in order to gain a better understanding of the beliefs of the others. This phenomena indicates that despite the separation of politics, society and religion imposed by the prevailing secularism of the west, religion still has its influence over both individuals and communities alike. Based on accepting the beliefs of others, this phenomena expresses a new dimension of safe-guarding the cultural and behavioral privacy of different human societies.

In intellectual meetings as well as political life, conflicts arise between efforts seeking to prove the existence of this privacy and the efforts of certain powers to impose a specific behavioral pattern, based on a set of values, in one of the fields of human interaction.

The first report issued by the U.S. Department of State (titled "The international religious freedom for 1999") is an example of the political-cultural conflict between the United States versus the rest of the world. This report is based on the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act issued in October 1999.

In the introduction of this law, the American Congress expressed its concern for religious freedom, mentioning that the United States from its foundation guarantees the individual's right to practice his religious freedom. Religious freedom is an international right, stipulated in many international agreements. The American Congress issued this act with the aim of spreading religious freedom all over the world as well as in the United States. The persecution faced by the followers of different religions in their countries is the reason behind issuing the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. Combating religious persecution worldwide became a heightened priority among U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The act issued by the American Congress includes many procedures, including an annual report issued by the American Department of State assessing religious freedom around the world. According to this report, the American president is required to take some action from a broad list of options against countries violating the right of religious freedom. Violations are measured by the American definition, not by any concept of the society accused of violation. This is one side of the hidden conflict that we will explain latter.

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The American report consists of three main parts: first, an executive summary; second, detailed reports on religious freedom in 198 countries all over the world and, lastly, appendixes covering a period of eighteen months (January 1998 - June 1999). Information is collected by American embassies in cooperation with governments, non-governmental organizations, correspondents, and human rights centers in different countries.

The executive summary presents a full analysis of the conditions of religious freedom around the world and its relation with different types of political regimes. This analysis reflects the American view of the relationship between the nature of the political regime and religious freedomラdefined by the International Declaration of Human Rights as an individual's freedom of conscience and beliefラand American actions to support religious freedom all over the world.

The report divide political regimes from the perspective of religious freedom into the following types:

Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes which seek to control thought and expression. It is not uncommon for such regimes to regard minority religious group as enemies of the state. The examples mentioned for this type is Afghanistan under the control of Taliban, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam and North Korea.

State hostility toward minority or non-approved religions. Some governments, while not necessarily determined to implement a program of control over minority religions, are nevertheless hostile to certain religions and implement policies designed to intimidate them, cause their adherents to convert to another religion, or cause their members to flee. Cited are Pakistan's acts of violence against Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Zikr, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, and Sudan.

State neglect of the problem of discrimination or persecution of minorities. In some countries, governments have laws or policies to discourage religious discrimination and persecution but fail to act with sufficient consistency and vigor against violation of religious freedom by non-governmental entities. For example:

  1. Bulgaria's failure to support religious freedom.

  2. Egypt, although members of the non-Muslim minority generally worship without interference. The report claims that there is some societal and governmental discrimination.

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  1. In India, responses of the central government were inadequate to counter the violence perpetrated by extremists against religious minorities and their places of worship. Likewise in Indonesia, the Maldives, and Uzbekistan.

  2. Discriminatory legislation or policies disadvantaging certain religions. Some governments have implemented laws or regulations that favor certain religions and place others at a disadvantage. Often this circumstance is the result of the historical predominance of one religion in a country and may reflect board social skepticism about new or minority religions. Sometimes it stems from the emergence of a country from a long period of Communist rule, in which all religions was prohibited or at best out of favor. In such countries, skepticism or even fear of certain religions or all religions lingers within segments of society, such as in Armenia, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Jordan, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

  3. Wrongfully associating certain religions with dangerous "cults" or "sects". During the past decade, governments and parliaments in a number of countries have focused their attention on the growth of new cults, in particular a number of dangerous organizations such as Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, or the Solar Temple in Canada and Switzerland. Since 1995, the parliaments or governments of Belgium, France and Germany, as well as Sweden and the Swiss canton of Geneva have produced parliamentary reports on new cults and religions, and on elements of long standing religions. The 1995 French parliamentary report admits that the French term "sect" is a word that evokes stereotypes in the popular mind. The same thing is noted by the Belgian parliamentary report. While the Swedish parliamentary report criticized the absence of objective methodology in the report of the French commissioners.

U.S. action to promote religious freedom. Under this title, the first part of the report of the American Department of State included a description of the actions taken by American officials of different levels to combat violations of religious freedom. These actions are taken whether in public or behind the scenes. Sometimes, rebuking nations and governments publicly doesn't work, as the report says. It is, of course, sometimes necessary for the United States and the international community to openly denounce particularly abhorrent behavior by another nation.

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The report concentrates on the role played by the American diplomatic missions abroad. The officials of these missions collect information in different countries. American ambassadors and Chiefs of Missions played an important role in explaining the American law to local officials in different countries. American ambassadors have been involved personally in individual cases of religious persecution. For example, when the Chinese Catholic Bishop Su Zhimin disappeared in late 1997, the American Ambassador in China interfered to determine his whereabouts. The American ambassadors to Eritrea, India and Jordan intervened in cases related to religious minorities. In Egypt, The American ambassador maintained a regular dialog with senior religious and government leaders about treatment of Coptic Christians and other religious minorities. The same thing happened in Kazakhstan, Russia, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia.

American officials below the level of Chief of Mission made remarkable efforts in collecting information and raising the issue of religious freedom with government officials, non-governmental-officials, minorities' leaders and non-governmental organizations. For example, the American embassy staff in France has met several times with the interministerial commission that deals with the sects. The embassy seeks an understanding with the government on acceptable actions under international agreements. The American Embassy in Greece regularly met with officials responsible for religious affairs to foster understanding between Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious groups. Similar actions were taken in Indonesian, Serbia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Sudan, Ukraine, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Rumania.

American agencies play an effective role in these concerns. Members of the House of representatives make visits to many countries where they raise the issue of religious freedom.

After this detailed overview of the contents of the executive summary, I would like to point out some conclusions:

The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act places the promotion of religious freedom, according to the American experience, among American foreign policy priorities. This raises many problems concerning the real objectives of this law. It is not putting universal declarations of human rights in action, but it is a trial to impose an American view concerning religion over all the countries.

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The American Freedom from Religious Persecution Act raises the problem of distinguishing between sacred heavenly religions and other religions created by man. Societies which only admit heavenly religions, these are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, will not accept to give preference to a man-made law over sacred, heavenly, religions.

The American view doesn't distinguish between religions inspired by God and religions created by man. This view is completely different to the view of other societies, especially the Islamic ones. Islamic societies will not accept to open the way for man-made religions.

The United States' pressures on Islamic governments to open the way for man-made religions will lead to very negative results.

Translation copyright © 1999 Religion News Service of the Arab World

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