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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Statement on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion, or Belief at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

WARSAW, POLAND – The following statement on Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion, or Belief was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion, or Belief

Statement Delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Parmley

U.S. Delegation to the

OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

Mr. Chairman, for a moment I would like us to imagine a world in which all religious leaders–and all political leaders who consider themselves religious–taught that violence was antithetical to religion. What would it be like if in the 21st Century all ministers, priests, imams, patriarchs, rabbis, nuns and monks, all presidents, prime ministers, legislators and government officials insisted that no one can consider himself or herself authentically Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or an adherent of any other faith, while degrading other human beings for any reason–especially in the name of religion?

In fact, virtually every faith teaches the inviolability of human dignity. For all religions, an attack on innocents is an assault on religious truth. Every religion, however, is plagued with impostors and charlatans who distort teachings of mercy into creeds of violence. In light of the unspeakable crime that has occurred in my country–a crime all the more tragic because its supporters falsely summon the name of religion to justify their atrocities–I urge the OSCE top rededicate itself to protecting and nourishing religious freedom for every human being. To quote President Bush, who said in his address to the Congress September 20, “No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.” That has to be the guiding philosophy of our work here. That has to be the inspiring creed of our actions as governments in the weeks, months, and years ahead.

The universality of human dignity is, of course, at the heart of religious freedom. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that “all human beings are born free and equal in human rights” and that each is “endowed with reason and conscience.” Reason and conscience direct us to the source of that endowment, an orientation typically expressed in religion.

This institution has for almost four decades been at the forefront of protecting the voices of faith. From the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, through the Madrid, Vienna and Copenhagen Concluding Documents, to the 1994 Budapest Summit Declaration, the OSCE has stoutly defended the right of every human being to worship and to practice religious faith according to the dictates of conscience.

Its member states are committed to eliminate discrimination against people of faith in all fields of civil, political, economic, social and cultural life; to permit believers to associate openly with each other; to teach and manifest their beliefs in public or in private; to change their religion; to establish and run schools that educate their children in their beliefs; to establish and run seminaries in order to train their clergy.

In short, Mr. Chairman, this institution has been a bulwark in the fight against religious persecution and discrimination, and in the reaffirmation of universal human dignity. Today, as many of our nations join together in a campaign to defeat the enemies of human dignity and human freedom, it is vitally important that we affirm yet again those principles on which civilization is founded: that all men and women are equal in dignity and rights; that each of us has an intrinsic and inviolable right to seek ultimate truth about human destiny and purpose; that it is a fundamental purpose of governments to protect that right.

For that reason, Mr. Chairman, the United States would not be true to the charter of this great Organization on Security and Cooperation, nor true to its own values, by ignoring the barriers to religious freedom that continue to exist in the OSCE region.

Let me now apply this perspective to our subject. The United States is alarmed by continuing violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in several participating states in the OSCE region, and remains concerned over legal barriers being erected that would infringe on that right.

One such barrier is patterns of repressive actions by some OSCE countries against unregistered religious believers, including the detention and torture of some. We urge governments to criminalize violent actions, not religious beliefs. We are especially concerned during these times that devout believers not be radicalized and made violent in response to repression.

Let me begin with the United States. We have seen in recent days, in the wake of the attack on our nation, a small but nevertheless profoundly disturbing number of incidents in which Americans of the Islamic faith have been targeted for harassment by other U.S. citizens. In one case, a murderer may have taken a life thinking he was attacking Islam. Let me make it absolutely clear: harassment or discrimination, much less persecution, against anyone in my country on the basis or religion is unacceptable. Both the President and the Attorney General have emphasized that those who carry out such acts will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We are concerned that the harassment of minority religious groups by extremists ad some officials persists in OSCE countries. There have been reports of violence against members of minority religious communities.

The United States urges OSCE states to increase efforts to protect all faiths, including vigorous prosecution of those, including law enforcement officials, who are a party to violence.

The proliferation of laws and registration requirements targeting or limiting religious communities in the OSCE region has the potential to cause a chilling effect on religious freedom and is particularly disturbing. New laws and policies that focus on controlling certain religions threaten to undermine a host of fundamental freedoms and human rights by contributing to a growing intolerance against individuals because of their religious beliefs.

The United States remains troubled by the increase of legal regimes that effectively establish hierarchies of preferred religious communities based upon numbers and/or length of time in the country. This by its very nature discriminates against minority religions or beliefs notwithstanding states’ commitments found in the Madrid and Vienna Documents.

The United States welcomed the recent seminar on “Freedom of Religion or Belief in the OSCE Region: Challenges to Law and Practice.” The stringent registration procedures in a number of participating States weakens rather than supports the right of individuals to profess and practice their religions or beliefs. Often their reason stated for these new policies and laws is that they are needed to deter criminal activity. However, the ambiguous wording of some of these laws and regulations gives them the potential to place religious freedom at risk by criminalizing the activities of certain religious groups.

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