Protecting religious freedom of all

The conversation was both memorable and sad. It was 1999 and I was in Moscow representing the United States and attempting to promote international religious freedom. In 1997, Russia had adopted a new law on religion, mostly in response to an opportunistic West that had flooded the former Soviet Union with missionaries following the fall of communism. The Russian Orthodox Church and Islam — the two established majority religions — felt threatened and conspired with the Russian government to produce the law. Most religious law from authoritarian countries turns out to be bad legislation, and this was no exception. It essentially provided government protection for established religions, while tearing up the welcome mat for anything new.

My meeting took place with high-ranking officials of the Orthodox and Islamic faiths. The discussions were candid and clear. The Russian Orthodox Church wanted to maintain a government-sanctioned monopoly on things spiritual. It was obvious that the Western missionary onslaught had generated great angst. The Russian Church felt dismissed at best, overrun at worst.

Missionaries’ cultural insensitivities contributed much to this hurt, ensuring this legislation as a result. Similarly, Islam felt a need to push back. The imam of Moscow told me unabashedly that he was losing some of his flock to Western evangelising efforts and needed the 1997 law to maintain “market share” (his phrase).

In a culture of religious pluralism, majority faiths bear special responsibilities. Unfortunately, all too often it is the dark side that emerges. India’s Hindus, for example, have recently petitioned the government

for a series of anti-conversion laws. For the world’s “largest democracy,” this violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is appallingly ironic. Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws have likewise sullied the moral standing and reputation of Islam. Clumsily written and easily abused, this legislation has most often been used to settle scores with individuals from minority faiths.

In the US, Christianity is the majority faith. As a nation that trumpets the rule of law, our “dark side” tends to reveal itself in the political process. For instance, in next year’s presidential sweepstakes, there may be a Mormon on the ticket. Polling data suggest that a significant number of Christians will not vote for a Mormon. If this is true, we can also assume that a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist candidate would lose votes from the Christian majority.

Martin Luther King Jr. summed up why the majority should stand up for all faiths. He said, “When one is not free, no one is free.” Silence in the face of religious oppression hastens the day when all religions will be diminished.

Mutual support among religions does not necessitate religious compromise. No faith needs to seek a lower common denominator in order to protect all people of faith, but followers of every religion should respect others’ beliefs.

One way we grade another country’s commitment to human rights is by how that country treats minority populations. Similarly, there is a religious test for majority faiths and how they interact with minority beliefs around. And this test is one that all religious majorities ought to prepare for — because lots of folks are watching. — The Christian Science Monitor