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Religion's Role in Human Rights

Upsurge in Activism Transforms Movements

WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 27, 2005 (Zenit) - Human-rights observers are focusing more attention on the plight of religious believers. Allied with this is an increasing activism on the part of faith-based groups to help their followers.

This phenomenon was analyzed in the recent book "Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights," by Allen Hertzke (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers). The professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma concentrates on the efforts of U.S.-based groups that focus on persecuted believers in all parts of the world.

These faith-based groups use a sophisticated array of tactics in the pursuit of their cause. Pressure is applied through legislative measures, petitions, protests, international campaigns, and stock divestment in companies that are seen to support repressive regimes.

Hertzke dates the start of this trend to the mid-1990s and links it to Christian evangelical groups that are allied with other organizations. Interest in defending religious liberty has also created alliances between groups that would not normally share common ground, uniting, for example, evangelicals, liberal Jews, Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists and even some feminists.

In the past, secular human rights groups, along with the press and the foreign policy establishment, tended to give low priority to religious persecution, Hertzke contends. This void left an opening for faith groups, and belies the arguments of those who see a growing secularization of society, he maintains.

The geographical shift of Christianity, with increasing numbers of believers in developing countries, has also played a part focusing more on religious persecution. The typical Anglican, he observes, is no longer a tea-drinking English vicar, but a young African mother. And in many developing countries there are still few guarantees of religious liberty. Allied with this is the trend to globalization, which makes it easier for Western activists to organize worldwide campaigns to defend their persecuted brethren.

Hertzke also traces some of the success of faith-based groups to the strength of religion in the United States. Over half of Americans are church members, a figure that far surpasses participation in any other form of associations, he notes. And church members are more likely to be activists and engaged in civic life, as well as receiving training in organizational skills through their faith-based activities.

Foreign policy

One tactic used by faith groups is lobbying for laws that give government backing in pressuring countries to respect religious freedom. Hertzke gives a number of examples of such legislative action:

-- Gary Haugen, a human rights lawyer who served as a U.N. genocide investigator in Rwanda, is an evangelical Christian and founded the organization International Justice Mission. Documentation by this group, and others, prompted Congress to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000.

-- Charles Jacobs created the American Anti-Slavery Group, which highlighted slavery in such countries as Sudan and Mauritania. Pressure by rights groups led to the Sudan Peace Act in 2002.

-- Information from a German doctor, Norbert Vollersten, on rights abuses in North Korea was given prominence by U.S. based Christian groups, leading to the introduction of legislation in Congress in 2003.

Other recent legislative actions include the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established both the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the International Religious Freedom Office in the State Department.

Hertzke admits that combining foreign policy with initiatives to ensure greater religious freedom is sometimes criticized for being unilateral, self-righteous or inconsistent. Yet, he says, "this thrust in American foreign policy uniquely reflects the nation's distinct historical legacy, which treats free religious societies as a crucial foundation for pluralist democracy."

Some reject the idea of the United States as a kind of moral paradigm, or fear that it is trying to impose its own cultural model. But Hertzke points out that some degree of leadership is inevitable given the pre-eminent economic and military power of America. He also rejects the charge that linking religious freedom to foreign policy is merely pursuing the views of religious conservatives. In fact, initiatives in this field have been backed by a wide variety of groups, including Anglicans, Buddhists, Bahais and Jews.

The professor further argues that there is a need for church groups to be involved in foreign policy, as a necessary counterweight to corporate influence. "Today, mobilization through churches constitutes the only serious challenge to the periodic hijacking of foreign policy by global business interests perfectly content to ignore the sometimes abysmal human rights record of the trading partners."

Catholic contribution

Hertzke acknowledges the "unique and formidable resources" that the Catholic Church brings to the field of defending human rights. He notes that John Paul II has used his pontificate to champion human rights, and specifically, the need for religious freedom. This interest is a constant feature of his life. As a bishop in Poland, Karol Wojtyla helped lead Church resistance to communism, and he was one of the authors of Second Vatican Council declaration on religious freedom, "Dignitatis Humanae."

One of the most prominent American Catholics involved in the fight for religious freedom is Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, in Washington, D.C. Shea, reports Hertzke, affirms that more Christians are suffering today for their faith than at any time in history.

A major concern of Shea during the 1990s was the persecution of Christians in China. Other countries such as Vietnam and Sudan have also occupied her attention in recent years. Shea has also been an example of how alliances have been forged between the churches. The Center for Religious Freedom followed the situation of Protestants, Buddhists and others, as well as Catholics. Her book, "In the Lion's Den," sold more than 50,000 copies by the end of the 1990s. It came out through a Southern Baptist publishing house and was widely promoted through interviews on evangelical radio stations.

Jewish voices

Hertzke also highlights the growing participation of Jews in pressuring for religious freedom, and in defending Christians. Cooperation between Jewish and Christian groups goes back to the 1970s, when the two were united in defending Jews from persecution in the Soviet Union.

In recent years Jews have been prominent in helping Christians. Charles Jacobs, for example, founded the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, which has been active in defending Christians in Sudan. Abe Rosenthal, former editor and columnist for the New York Times, has spoken out in defense of Christians suffering under communism and Islamic regimes. And Michael Horowitz, of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, has written and lobbied in the defense of Christians and other believers.

Other chapters detail the complicated processes involved in lobbying for legislation by Congress and relate the campaigns on such issues as Sudan. Hertzke notes that in order to understand current U.S. action on human rights issues it is first necessary to have an idea of religion's importance in American life.

He says that the years of research that went into the book have taught him that religious belief and altruism count for a lot more than is allowed for by political science scholarship, which concentrates so much on impersonal forces. The greater religious input into the political and diplomatic spheres has also been positive, remedying a tendency to overlook the importance of churches and believers, Hertzke maintains. And religion's influence on human rights looks to be a continuing factor in coming years.


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