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Land lauds increasing attention to religion in U.S. foreign policy

HOUSTON (BP)–Religious persecution is increasing around the world while, ironically, Americans’ sensitivity to and understanding of religious liberty is declining, argued Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land spoke at Rice University’s inaugural conference on religious tolerance Sept. 21, appearing primarily in his role as a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“There is a religious dimension to every conflict in the world,” Land observed. He added that ethnic and religious strife is growing and replacing power or economics as primary motivators behind wars and terrorist attacks.

“Future [American] leaders must take religion seriously,” he said. “Otherwise, foreign policies will fall short. Our leaders must factor religion into domestic and foreign policies” if America hopes to continue to have an impact on peace and freedom around the world.

Land continued: “Religion is not the only way, or even the key factor, in explaining conflicts. Societies are complex…. But we can’t understand global conflicts without understanding religion, especially in areas where the great faiths intersect.”

He demonstrated this “faiths intersect” idea by citing such global hot spots as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel and the Palestinians, and Pakistan and India.

“Religious beliefs are powerful motivators,” Land said. “It motivates and inspires human behavior even to the point of death…. With apologies to Mark Twain, the rumors of religion’s demise are greatly exaggerated.”

Land appeared with Michael Cromartie, vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior advisor to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C. Cromartie is chairman of the USCIRF.

The necessity to account for religion in formulating U.S. foreign policy “is precisely why the International Religious Freedom Act was enacted by Congress in 1998,” Cromartie said.

“IRFA promotes respect for every person to have freedom to believe or not to believe, as they want,” he explained. “It articulates policy positions which include the condemnation of violations of religious freedom, and calling for the American government to stand with abused and persecuted people around world, regardless of their faith … IRFA required the Department of State to create an annual report on religious freedoms around world. It required the president to designate ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ and oppose violations wherever they occur.”

Land cautioned that even though religious freedom is an important component of American foreign policy, one that should be kept at the forefront of decision-making analysis, it does not need to be over-arching or preeminent over other factors.

“But religious liberty has played an integral part in U.S. history, and we do best in the world when we reflect who we are,” Land said. “Religious liberty has been a core conviction of the American people…. Commitment to a universal dignity of humans to have freedom to believe is at the core of all other rights.”

Americans must realize, though, that the language of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is not the only way a country can ensure religious freedom for its citizens. Land said that religious freedom has been provided for in numerous international instruments since World War II.

“The gold standard is Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights,” Land said.

Land quoted Article 18: “‘Everyone has the right to 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 and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

“If Afghanistan or Iraq or some other country wants to give right of place to Islam, that is their right,” Land said. “What they have no right to do is coerce belief, or prevent conversions, or restrict the practice of other faiths.”

Additionally, Land said that religious freedom, along with the rights of women and children, is the “canary in the coal mine” for assessing a country’s peacefulness or propensity for terrorist impulses.

“Religious liberty is linked to other human rights, including growth of democracy,” Land said. “Countries that protect religious liberty also tend to protect other rights. Countries that protect religious liberty make good neighbors. … Countries that don’t [protect religious liberty] tend to breed terrorism.”

Land lamented the fact that the United States has few willing international allies in its effort to raise the profile of religious liberty assessment in setting foreign policy, referring specifically to Western European governments who have “not taken the lead, sad to say.”

He cited recent court decisions in France that have banned public schoolchildren from wearing most types of head coverings to school.

“Muslim girls and Jewish boys can’t go to French public schools because of these decisions,” Land said.

“When the U.S. government speaks on this issue, we are forwarding the case for freedom,” Land said.

Speaking out on this issue is more important now than ever, Land said. He hoped that America could learn the lessons of the past century so as not to repeat them in the next because otherwise the consequences will be tragically similar.

“If the 20th century was a century of ideology, the 21st century is shaping up to be a century of religion,” he said. “The more we ignore the reality of how religion plays a role in conflicts, the more problems we will have…. The 20th century is littered with the bodies of martyrs at the hands of dictators and despots who have killed their own people on the basis of religious persecution.”

Land said that certain groups within the U.S. foreign service corps “seem to be the most recalcitrant to the USCIRF’s recommendations.”

But Land said that the events of 9/11 have helped turn around some of those career diplomats. He cited one of the findings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) which recognized that the U.S. must engage in promoting moderate Islam in order to fight jihad Islam and its terrorist ideology.

“Islam is one of the great questions for the 21st century,” Land said. “The attacks of 9/11 were a conscious attempt to place Islam and the U.S. at odds, by a jihad minority…. Now our terrorist policies are trying to demonstrate that jihad has no place, and encourage moderate Muslims.”

Land expressed admiration of President George W. Bush for admitting that U.S. foreign policy toward jihad Islam had been wrong for the past 50 years. Where U.S. presidents once praised jihad Muslims as “brave anti-Communists,” Land said Bush has implemented policies against jihad Islam and in support of more moderate Islamic groups.

Land concluded by responding to a question about the Southern Baptist Convention’s outreach to Jews a couple years ago. The SBC’s call for prayer that Jews would come to believe in Jesus Christ drew criticism and objections from many Jewish leaders and even other Christian denominations.

“As Christians, we have a Great Commission,” Land explained. “It is not a Great Suggestion…. That being said, the Great Commission is not incompatible with respecting other faiths…. Any interference with a person’s relationship with God that is coercive is what Roger Williams called ‘soul rape’ and it is to be resisted…. As an American, I defend to the death everyone’s right to believe or not believe, just as I defend to the death my right to share the Gospel.”

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  • Brent Thompson