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Experts mull religious freedom, tolerance in US, abroad

Thomas Gallagher, far right, begins the panel discussion “Tolerance: A Key to Religious Freedom” at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9, 2017. RNS photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

 

WASHINGTON (RNS) Speaking at a forum on tolerance, the former U.S. religious freedom ambassador said complaints about religious freedom problems in this country pale in comparison with atrocities faced by religious minorities abroad.

Rabbi David Saperstein, who recently ended his tenure at the U.S. State Department, said he takes seriously “tough issues,” such as abortion and gay rights, that have divided Americans who emphasize religious or civil rights.

“But make no mistake: As painful and real as these issues are in the hearts and souls of the people making these competing claims, we are talking about people who are being brutalized, we are talking about people who are being imprisoned,” he said of international religious freedom challenges.

“I pray for the day when across the globe the worst problem that we have is how do we balance our competing civil rights claims,” he added. “What a day for a hallelujah that will be in terms of the entire vision of our international religious freedom efforts.”

The forum, “Tolerance: A Key to Religious Freedom,” was hosted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and co-sponsored by Religion News Service and the Religion News Foundation.

Rev. Thomas J. Reese, left, reacts as Rabbi David Saperstein speaks with Dr. John Sexton looking on during the panel discussion “Tolerance: A Key to Religious Freedom” on Feb. 9, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, left, reacts as Rabbi David Saperstein speaks with John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University, looking on during the panel discussion “Tolerance: A Key to Religious Freedom” in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The Rev. Thomas Reese, moderator of the event and USCIRF chair, said his bipartisan commission is addressing countries, such as North Korea and China, that are widely considered to be hostile toward religion, and nations such as Iraq and Nigeria that have failed to protect the religious freedoms of their citizens.

“There are grave humanitarian consequences when religious freedom is violated,” he said. “These conditions underscore the need for a different way forward, one of tolerance as a key to religious freedom as well as stability and security.”

A representative of the Hindu American Foundation asked the panelists why U.S. agencies that address religious freedom are dominated by members of the Abrahamic faiths and don’t tend to include people with Eastern philosophies and secular standpoints.

Reese said the commission is willing to work with Hindu groups to learn more about persecution of Hindus in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

“I think that’s very important for us to focus on,” Reese said. “We have to defend not just Christians, not just Jews, not just people from the Abrahamic tradition but people of all faiths or people who have no faith whatsoever, and I think that is a fundamental principle of religious freedom that we should have.”

Joyce Dubensky, Esq., CEO of Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. RNS photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

Joyce Dubensky, CEO of Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. RNS photo by Cathy Lynn Grossman

Other panelists at the forum, attended by about 80 journalists, faith leaders and religious freedom experts, stressed the role of educators in building tolerance and religious understanding.

“We have to work with teachers often because they have fears and misconceptions about whether they can even teach about religion,” said Joyce Dubensky, CEO of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.

They even wonder, she added, “whether they have to avoid talking about the reason Puritans came to the U.S. – religious persecution.”

John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University, teaches students in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi about government and religion, fostering discussions that range from the Crusades to Mideast tensions.

“The heart of the matter is to understand that the core problem here is not anything other than a mindset of certitude and triumphalism that can manifest itself secularly as well as religiously,” he said.

Former Rep. Frank Wolf, a longtime religious freedom activist, urged that Republicans and Democrats set aside partisan differences and continue to travel together to global regions to investigate religious persecution firsthand and visit the imprisoned and their families.

“The worst thing in the world is being in the darkest place and think no one cares,” he said.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

8 Comments

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  • I agree with Dubensky. World religions being taught in public schools. Religion has played a tremendous role in shaping history yet we avoid it like the plague in our school systems. Ignorance is usually behind hatred and intolerance.

  • “and nations such as Iraq and Nigeria that have failed to protect the religious freedoms of their citizens.”
    What about the good ol’ US of A?
    Trump’s executive order.
    The marriage bans.
    Dominionist laws.

  • I think a first step is creating awareness as to the history of one’s country and then the Western world with respect to incidents or events displaying ‘a mindset of certitude and triumphalism that can manifest itself secularly as well as religiously’. My experience with world religions is that people tend to have problems leaving their belief lenses behind.

  • What about right here in America? Can all denominations be invited into prisons, jails, etc? Or be included as a legitimate Christian denomination? Some Christian religions are still discriminated against: Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc., because they hold differing doctrines from mainstream Christianity. America is no different from countries who discriminate based on doctrinal interpretations. The practice is un-Christian according to the teachings of Jesus. “And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:50). All are included in God’s Kingdom and have an inalienable right to practice the religion of choice on equal grounds according to the Gospel.

  • USCIRF has no tolerance of facts. For instance,USCIRF 02/2017 report states “the caste system is a fundamental part of Hinduism. According to Hindu scripture, individuals are born inherently unequal
    into a graded, caste-based structure that defines their status and opportunities in life. The core Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita declares: “Four castes have been created by Hindu god Krishna.” but the fact is that in Bhagavad Gita 9.29,Sri Krishna states “All beings are equal to Me. There is none especially hateful to Me, nor one who is especiallydear to Me.” Implication of USCIRF stmt are alarming. It states that Hinduism is inherently unequal;So,Those who defend Hinduism are presumed supremacist & those who seek to destroy it are attempting to establish egalitarian society? USCIRF stmt provides cover for outlawing Hinduism? On several occasions,USCIRF has advocated outlawing Hindu organizations in USA & India. USCIRF’s official recommendation to US govt is to investigate & outlaw Hinduity groups in USA.

    Depending on religion & group in question, So-called Religious Freedom plays both sides of blasphemy law, equality, free-speech and all ideals. USIRF reports fail
    basic fact checking test. Few examples:-

    1) Event: Sexual abuse of 20+ kids in India.

    US Dept of State 2008 Religious Freedom report paints Pastor Jacob John as
    innocent & vilified complainant.

    Fact: Pastor John Jacob faces charges of abusing 53 kids. 1 child is pregnant
    and 4 children died. Most of the cases are handled by Nagaland Police. India’s
    Nagaland State has 90%+ xtian population.

    2)Event: Attack on Hindu Monastery,Orissa,India: Massacre of 5 ppl incl 82yrold
    Monk, Woman & Children

    USCIRF portrayal: USCIRF Villifies 82yrold Monk. Defend accused & doubt
    court judgement without providing any facts.

    Fact: Court found 7 Christians, linked with maoist terror group, guilty of
    Jalespesta Hindu Massacre.

    3) Event: Tripura National liberation front, a christian terror group in india,
    attacks hindu ashram and kills head monk Swami Shanti Kali. All 18 branches of
    Shanti Kali Mission were forcibly closed.

    USCIRF coverage: none

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