International Coalition for Religious Freedom
delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998
I would like to start by thanking each of our participants in this historic conference. I think this is really your conference. It is your energy, your insights, your commentary that has made this conference such a great success. We have been able to accomplish a great deal. There has been a tremendous amount of information shared, and there have been some absolutely outstanding papers and information that we will be able to continue to provide to the international human rights community and the international legal community.
I just want to make a few comments about where we might be going with the Coalition. Some of this may be a wish list, which may depend in part on our funding sources, but we are hopeful to expand our activities. Of course, one of the first things we are going to do is digest the materials that have been presented and the suggestions and recommendations that have been made here today and over the last couple of days We want to publish the materials that have been presented, and make them available to people in the US Congress at the State Department and to affected foreign governments, so that they are educated about the realities of religious human rights issues that we have been discussing.
We also want to publish the materials on our web site, so that we can ensure broad access to this very valuable information. We are also going to disseminate the materials to relevant human rights groups who will be interested. I know we had requests from Freedom House for materials related to many of the countries where they don’t have complete information on the human rights situation.
I think, where we see the ICRF going is, at least in part, to be an international resource center for those who are concerned with religious freedom issues. That is our issue, religious freedom, and we are interested in providing resources. We have the web site, which has detailed analysis of the human rights situation in over 100 nations across the globe. We have our newsletter, which provides accurate up-to-date information on the human rights situation in several countries, and provides other sorts of insight on religious freedom news.
We also have available expertise that is developed within the Coalition on human rights, and we have a vast network of individuals, including all of you who attended today, that we can put people in touch with when they have religious freedom concerns wherever they are in the globe. Our web site has links to a number of other human rights organizations.
I think we certainly are going to continue to be concerned about the most dramatic religious human rights abuses in the fundamentalist Muslim countries such as Sudan, where people are losing their lives on a daily basis. Also, in the Communists regimes that continue to limit religious freedom. We also see an opportunity within the democracies that are struggling with religious freedom issues to have a real impact. In that regard I think we will be looking at countries like Russia, Japan, Germany, and France.
These are democracies where it is possible to influence the deliberations of government and try to encourage either a renewed commitment to religious freedom, or a further commitment to religious freedom in those countries. We have heard of many problems, many abuses, and the sense that things have been going in a negative direction in many of these countries of late. We want to work in that regard with scholars with human rights activists, and with leaders of various religious communities.
Just by way of commentary, by what I have been hearing at this conference, it seems that in some democracies, there is often an unholy alliance that has developed between the left influence by Marxist thought that feels that all religion is false and the opiate of the people, or whatever. So to get rid of the smaller, more aggressive and more devoted religious types would be a great benefit to society. They have formed an alliance with conservative religious groups who see an interest in limiting the growth of what they see as competition in the religious marketplace.
Then, there is an additional element that we see in many countries in Eastern Europe and Russia, of the ultra-nationalists who are looking to the traditional religions as the source of identity for their country, and are therefore willing to attack any foreign religion, or smaller religion, which doesn’t help sustain what they perceive as the only glue that can hold their societies together.
We are hoping to do further conferences, perhaps on specific issues that have been suggested during the course of this meeting and perhaps in other parts of the globe, in Europe, in Latin America, in Asia, and in Russia. These are all places that obviously have a need for focused attention on religious freedom issues. And we will be considering where to go with regard to that.
We may also be setting up an advisory committee in each of these continents and we hope that some of you will be prepared to work with us and advise us and be members of those committees.
One of the key issues that has come to the fore, has been the note that we need dialog. We need deep dialog, we need profound dialog, and I think there are at least a couple of levels where programs or conferences, or at least interaction may be helpful. We need dialog between minority religious groups, smaller religious groups. The ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, and similar groups tends to reach out to the large majority churches. But if we are to pursue the work of religious freedom together, we need, I think, to understand each other more fully. We need to appreciate each other and create the kinds of working relationships that come from dialog. So I am suggesting that there should be dialog between the smaller religious organizations so that we can understand each other.
It seems clear that if we don’t form coalitions, if we don’t work together, that we will be unable to solve these problems. In most situations it is not just one small religion that is being attacked, but it is a large group of smaller religions. They say, in the United States, “if you don’t hang together, you will hang separately.” So we should focus on that.
Of course, we should also endeavor to create opportunities for dialog with the majority religions and have as much of that happening as possible in order to lessen the tensions there. It is often the majority religions that have the sort of emotional power that is influencing governments to take actions against the smaller religious communities. Who knows, we may be able to engage in those dialogs as well in our spare time.
In general, I just want to thank each and every one of you and welcome your input and your suggestions as we move forward in creating this organization that has been here for many years and doing much valuable work in the United States and now internationally. But it is still really at an embryonic stage in many respects so we look to your input, to your advice, to your wise counsel, and we thank you for your participation in this conference and look forward to continued working relationships.
Thank you very much.