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Opening Remarks PDF Print E-mail

Bruce J. Casino, International Coalition for Religious Freedom

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

Obregado. Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening. I want to thank each of you for coming to our conference on religious freedom this weekend in Sao Paulo. I know that you are very busy and yet you have come from 40 countries around the world to give your time and attention to this very important issue. I am especially thankful to Mr. Dong Moon Joo, the President of the Washington Times Foundation, which has provided us with the funding for this wonderful conference.

As an attorney, I practice at a law firm with 500 lawyers in the United States. I know there are many very distinguished attorneys here tonight, including the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Paraguay and Dr. Marco Polo Del Nero from Sao Paolo. In spite of the fact that there are all of these lawyers here and I know distinguished colleagues from Italy and elsewhere, I am going to tell a lawyer joke. The question is, what do you have when you have six lawyers up to their necks in cement? Not enough cement.

We are here, of course, about a very serious issue, religious freedom. I want to tell you a little about our organization, the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. The Coalition began in 1984 in the United States. It is a nonprofit educational organization and its purpose originally was focused on religious freedom issues in the United States. In the last several years, we have developed a very international focus. We publish a bi-monthly newsletter on religious freedom issues around the globe. We have a web site on the Internet, which is one of the best on religious freedom anywhere in the world. We have reports there of the status of religious freedom in over 100 countries. This is the fourth international conference on religious freedom that we have held this year. The first conference was in Washington, DC; the second was in Tokyo, Japan, and the third in Berlin, Germany.

We are advocating the principles articulated in Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of that absolutely seminal document. Article 18 says that:

Everyone has the right to the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom either alone or in community with others in public or private to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

There are many human rights documents, both global and regional. The countries of the Americas themselves have adopted several human rights instruments. I would like to quote briefly from the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in Article 8, which states, "Every person has the right freely to profess a religious faith and to manifest and practice it both in public and in private."

The American Convention on Human Rights, which is subscribed to by virtually every country in Latin America, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and of religion. This right includes freedom to maintain and change one’s religion or beliefs and freedom to profess or disseminate one’s religion or beliefs individually or together with others in public or in private. No one shall be subject to restrictions that might impair his freedom to maintain or change his religion or beliefs. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or a social groups or any human power in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.

As a lawyer, I like documents. I like constitutional provisions and declarations. I have studied the constitutions of almost every country on the issue of religious freedom, and almost every country even Cuba and China has some provision in their constitution attesting to a belief in religious freedom. However, there always seem to be difficulties in the practical application of the law.

I want to just briefly mention two issues that I think are very significant in any analysis of the situation. First, it seems that problems regarding religious freedom usually concern groups that are small or a minority within their particular nation. Therefore, the question of "what is religion" is a very important question because religious freedom is what is being protected by the UN Declaration, as well as other human rights documents and by constitutional law.

Many countries take the position, either officially or in practice, that only the majority religions in that country are truly religions. The true measure of religious freedom is how the minority religions and the small religions, the groups described as "cults," are treated in a country. The American writer Tom Wolfe, I believe, said that "a cult is any religion without political power."

This is something that we need to focus on. What is a religion? We should, as the United Nations Human Rights Committee has suggested, have a broad definition of religion that does not limit religion to organizations that are more than 100 years old.

The second issue has to do with the exception to the general principle of religious freedom based on public order, safety, health, or morals. This is a legitimate principle, but it is sometimes being applied by governments in a way which is not legitimate. Let me suggest that a violation of the public must be a very compelling violation to overcome the religious freedom of an individual or a group. There are countries of the democratic world, however, who are taking the position that the Jehovah’s Witness knocking at your door is disturbing the public order and therefore they should be eliminated from the protection of religious freedom.

I want to make clear that our concern is not about one group or one organization. We are concerned about freedom for all religions. We are concerned about the Sudan, where tens of thousands of Catholics, Protestants and members of local religions have been and are being murdered. We are concerned about Tibet where the Dalai Lama and members of his Buddhist faith are not able to enter and to practice their religion. We are concerned about China where Roman Catholics are not able to freely practice their religion.

Even in Latin America there are problems concerning religious freedom. I read recently the statement of the Secretary of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico. He was very concerned about a law proposed by the ruling party of Mexico that would have outlawed the freedom of priests to express criticism of laws, political institutions or economic strategies.

In Venezuela, the ministry that oversees the registration of religions has withdrawn the registration of some smaller religions because of criticism, apparently by the Catholic authorities. In our conference, we hope that we can explore the issues of religious freedom in a professional and academic way so that we can move toward an understanding of the solutions. We also want to hear from you about specific violations so that we can report on those to the relevant human rights organizations and government authorities.

We have gathered at this conference an amazing assembly including some of the best people in the world who are involved in human rights, scholars who are knowledgeable about the academic issues, and representatives of the religious community. I hope that you can take the time to get to know each other and to build relationships which will prove fruitful in advancing the cause of freedom.

Again, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be with us at this conference. I look forward to meeting each of you and to your continuing participation in the work on behalf of religious freedom.