On Tuesday, October 19, the Catholic University of America’s (CUA) Institute for Human Ecology hosted its Annual Human Rights Lecture, which focused on the fundamental, international law, and constitutional dimensions of religious freedom. The event featured former U. S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, and RFI Senior Fellow and Director of the Program in Human Rights for CUA’s Institute for Human Ecology, William Saunders.
A former U.S. diplomat to the United Nations and a lawyer with international expertise, Saunders began the event by providing an overview of Article 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). To uphold religious liberty in accord with these edicts, Saunders explained, governments must avoid the use of coercion in matters of religion and ensure that:
Everyone has freedom to manifest their religion in practice—not just in a closed church, but in practice, in observance, in public and in private. In private, yes, but in public also with others. [Religious Freedom is] not an individualized right that’s just for you to go to a prayer closet. It guarantees a robust religious liberty.
While the principles expressed in these UN declarations are admirable and constitute binding international norms, Ambassador Brownback offered a sober reminder that religious freedom is currently under threat worldwide. After discussing Article 18 and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Brownback asked:
Why is such a recognized human right under such attack in the world today? These are clear words, agreed to by everybody—philosophers agreed to it, set it up—and yet 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where there’s substantial religious persecution, substantial limitations on religious freedom.
Whether religious persecution – in the forms of discrimination, restriction, or violence – is rooted in upholding atheism and the power of a political party, as in the case of the Chinese Communist Party, or some form of religious extremism, secularism, or authoritarianism, it is essential for people everywhere to act, Brownback argued, in defense of people of faith:
We need political activism, particularly in the West…. Any ground that’s lost on religious freedom in the United States will be magnified around the world. This is the primary country to stand up for religious freedom…. It’s got to be fought for here. My conclusion is that this is a fundamental fight of our era. We either will win it and we’ll have a lot more peace or we will lose it and we’ll have a lot more killing that will take place.
Describing the nature of his call to serve and advocate for vulnerable religious persons wherever they may be, Brownback concluded:
I was in Taiwan. We were hosting a regional religious freedom summit. The Taiwanese, a number of us were there, and a thought really hit me that… I’m a very small part of God’s hands and His feet to address a problem that’s on His heart. He’s hearing the prayers of these people who are persecuted. There’s more Christian persecution now taking place than any time in the history of Christendom, but it’s not just Christians, it’s everybody. And God is hearing these prayers, but then he works through us. I get to be a part of the hands and the feet, and you do too. And that’s what I think we’re being called to do….
Watch the event: Annual Human Rights Lecture – IHE.
Justin Lombardi is a Research Assistant with RFI’s Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society Project and a graduate of Catholic University’s Masters in Human Rights Program.