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Can God & Caesar Coexist? Balancing Religious Freedom and International Law
By ROBERT F. DRINAN, S.J.
Yale University Press Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter One A New Global Right: Religious Freedom
Scores of constitutions drawn up since the end of World War II have proclaimed religious freedom as one of the most fundamental rights known to humanity. Similarly, international covenants of human rights have exalted the right to religious liberty as a privilege that is so foundational and precious that it should be guaranteed by international law.
Support for the right to practice the religion of one's choice is very new in human history, and it prompts dozens of questions. If the new right to religious freedom were accepted and enforced, for example, would the world be spared the savagery of wars prompted at least in part by the clash of religious beliefs?
The worldwide spread of national and international commitments to religious freedom also begets a host of questions. Can the governmental and other bodies that support this right believe that the absolutism with which most religious bodies have traditionally promulgated their beliefs is now so diminished that the adherents of most religions would not seek to impose their views on others? Is agnosticism now so widespread that neither believers nor nonbelievers have the certainty that is necessary to seek to impose their religious views by force? Whether or not this is the case, the origins and implications of these unprecedented world commitments to protect religious freedom deserve intense scrutiny and evaluation.
Support is not universal, and resistance to ensuring religious freedom must also be evaluated. China and India, for example, are not open to witnesses of religions that are not indigenous to those countries. Similarly, the forty or so nations that contain the world's billion Muslims are not always receptive to religious beliefs or bodies whose teachings are, at least in part, contrary to Islam.
In other words, although the vast majority of nations have made a commitment to religious freedom, it is unclear how those nations actually behave in respect to creeds and cults that are at variance with their historic cultural and religious beliefs.
One would like to think that wars inspired by religious zeal were safely in the past. Clearly they are now forbidden by customary international law; after all, the 191 nations that have ratified the United Nations covenants on political and economic rights have solemnly pledged to refrain from such wars. But the international machinery to prevent them is very new and still feeble.
The ultimate reasons why religious freedom is cherished so widely and so deeply today need to be explored and amplified. At its most superficial level, the right to the free exercise of religion is a rule of expediency that can be traced to 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia restored to Lutherans the free practice of their religion in the Holy Roman Empire and extended it to the Calvinists, while recognizing that the dominant religion of a nation normally forms the core of the church-state relationship in that country. Given the presumptive power of the religious majority, religious minorities are protected by the general right to religious freedom. This rule, with some modifications, may be agreeable to the nations of Europe, the United States, and the Commonwealth, but the concept sometimes lacks legs elsewhere.
Of every hundred people on Earth, nearly twenty are Muslim. The fifty-five nations that make up the Islamic Conference are deeply divided over the question of religious freedom. Although most Muslims, if asked, would register disapproval of the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan in 2001, for example, there is nevertheless a consensus among Muslim nations that the secular state can embrace the full exercise of the rights and duties that derive from the Koran.
The uncertainty around the world concerning the extent to which governments should guarantee religious freedom is one of the major reasons why the United Nations has not pursued a covenant or a legally binding instrument on freedom of religion, as it has done with respect to such issues as the rights of minorities, women, and children. Similarly, that uncertainty is one of the principal reasons why it has never considered establishing a world entity to monitor compliance with the demands of religious freedom, as it has done to implement its covenants on political and economic rights.
As one contemplates the possibility of a world tribunal competent to adjudicate and penalize denials of religious freedom, one must reflect on Christ's predictions that his followers would be persecuted. Indeed, nothing in the New Testament is clearer. Given this received wisdom, why should Christians now seek assurances that they will not be harmed or treated as second-class citizens? In the early years after the Crucifixion, it never entered a Christian's mind-or anyone else's-to insist on the kind of right to religious freedom now set forth solemnly in several documents of the United Nations.
Christians like myself may be asked whether their desire to ensure religious freedom for all who have faith in any religion is at odds with their belief in Christianity. But this suggestion of a conflict of faith is not valid, because central to Christianity is the conviction that no one believes in Christ unless that person receives the grace to believe directly from God. Christ made it clear to his Apostles and to all of us that he chose them, they did not choose him. Faith is not earned or merited; it is a gratuitous gift from God. A Christian may, and indeed must, desire that governments facilitate the rights of all persons who accept the gift of faith as it is offered to them by God.
To be sure, the Catholic Church did not always seek religious freedom for every believer. For centuries the Church held to the conviction that governments should be required to discourage and even ban not only non-Christian religions but any version of Christianity that differed from Catholicism. But in 1965 the Second Vatican Council radically altered that doctrine, so that now the Catholic Church strongly states that any governmental coercion of individuals to adhere or not to adhere to any religion is wrong.
By this policy, Christians seek to protect from persecution not merely themselves but all followers of all the religions of the world. Christians are well aware of Christ's words: "If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20). The words Christ uttered just before this prediction are equally foreboding: "Because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you" (John 15:17).
People of faith are well aware of the complexity of the task of guaranteeing religious freedom. The second edition of World Christian Encyclopedia, issued in 2001, reports that 84 percent of the world's 6.06 billion persons declare themselves to be adherents of some form of organized religion. Fewer than 2 billion are Christian, and about half of these are Catholic. Muslims number 1.1 billion; Hindus, 812 million; and Buddhists, 359 million. The number of Jews throughout the world is estimated to be 14 million. Animists and others account for most of the rest.
The idea of creating some sort of international legal machinery to resolve clashes between these religious groups may seem quixotic. Indeed, some observers may have thought it unnecessary-but the genocide in Rwanda, resulting partly from religious differences, has gone far to change their minds. But there are alternatives. A unique trial in Belgium of persons who had fled from Rwanda drew on the four universally binding Geneva conventions of 1949 and led to the conviction of Rwandan nationals, including two nuns, in a foreign nation. Some could argue that this approach is preferable to the establishment of a world tribunal. Although the approach used in Belgium may be satisfactory in some ways, however, it by no means ensures uniformity, reliability, or predictability.
Most persons who speak out for religious tolerance may be vulnerable to a claim that they are biased in favor of their own faith. That charge could be made against me, for that matter: the objectivity of a person who by solemn vow is committed to the advancement of the Catholic faith and the interests of the Holy See can be challenged. But as we have seen, the Second Vatican Council made it clear that the Church does not condone any pronouncement or action that allows any shade of "coercion" for the advancement of the Catholic religion. It is certainly clear beyond question that since 1965, the Catholic Church has repudiated centuries of its customary practices, concluding that no government action that seeks to urge citizens to adhere or not to adhere to any religion may be condoned.
The idea of creating a world tribunal that would guarantee the free exercise of religion will elicit a strong reaction from both believers and nonbelievers. The world has welcomed the pronouncements of the United Nations committees that monitor the implementation of the political and economic rights to which the vast majority of nations have pledged their support. But an international entity sitting in judgment on the way these same nations regard religious freedom raises more serious misgivings, questions, and doubts. The feeling is somehow pervasive that government organizations-or even a transnational legal body-should not get involved in the religious practices of 84 percent of the human race.
But the world also remembers more and more vividly the tragedies brought about in the name of religion by the Crusades, the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, and the many wars over religion in Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, the contemplation of such transgressions led Pope John Paul II to apologize for the atrocities for which the Catholic Church can be held partly or wholly responsible.
The 172 nations that participated in the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna repeated and reinforced the proclamations of world law in favor of religious freedom. But the Vienna Conference made no giant step forward in this area, as the participants felt that the threat to world religious freedom had subsided with the demise of the USSR.
Since then the hindrances to religious freedom in Sudan, Northern Ireland, China, Bosnia, and elsewhere have strengthened the position of those individuals, nongovernmental organizations, and nations that want greater global protection for the right to religious freedom. But the cry for the expansion of this right is not universal. Many people remain leery of the interjection of secular forces-however well-meaning-into the beliefs or doings of religious groups.
Americans generally share a profound distaste for any governmental ruling that could potentially coerce a religious group in what it will or will not do or may proclaim. Although there is no reason that the U.S. example should necessarily serve as a guide for the rest of the world, it does seem to permeate the global debate about what governments can or should do to maximize the religious freedom of persons who are confronted by open hostility because of their religious beliefs or conduct. It is to be hoped that the general international consensus supporting religious freedom will enable the international community to free itself from the vestiges of a past rife with religious persecutions and move toward a future of true religious freedom. The world faces both obstacles and aids as it embarks on this journey.
Excerpted from Can God & Caesar Coexist? by ROBERT F. DRINAN, S.J. Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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