Toggle navigation menu.
Helsinki Default Banner

Keynote Address of Congressman Christopher H. Smith

Head of U.S. Delegation
OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
Conference on Religious Freedom
October 9-10, 2003
Roundtable on Religious Freedom and Democracy

Anyone with even a cursory understanding of U.S. history knows that the United States was founded as a safe haven–a place of destination–for millions yearning to live free from the crushing yoke of religious persecution and intolerance.

Over the two centuries of our independence–and for far more than a century prior to that–Americans have sought to protect, shield and safeguard the exercise of religious belief from unwarranted and intrusive government interference.

One exemplary feature enshrined in U.S. law, at local, state and federal levels, is the consistent legal concept that no one can legally discriminate against anyone in terms of educational opportunity, employment, or housing due to one’s faith or religion or creed. An offended party–say someone who has been denied a job or access to education because of their religion–has recourse in our courts to hold the offending party to account. And each law prescribes appropriate penalties to compel compliance.

The protection in law and in practice of religion contained in the U.S. is not without blemish or flaw, however, but is an ongoing work in progress. And even good laws without adequate enforcement can become mere words.

Nevertheless, religious liberty, in my view, is the single most tangible reason why America has prospered in so many ways. Our strength isn’t in our military might or even in our economy but in our collective faith. Moreover, this noble experiment in church freedom has produced enormously beneficial consequences and blessings. Indeed, strong families, ethnic and religious diversity and the zeitgeist of our people who, having tasted religious freedom, fully expect and demand all the other mutually reinforcing human rights, like speech and assembly.

Because the religious freedom Americans enjoy is largely inherited, I can only guess how difficult it must be for victims that have no such legacy to transform themselves from persecutor to protector of religious liberty. My generation of Americans was bequeathed a wonderful gift by our forefathers–a gift to preserve and strengthen. You who have endured dictatorships have an opportunity to leave your children a great gift and they indeed will bless you for it.

Mr. President, during my first term in Congress in 1981, both my wife and I read a powerful book entitled “Tortured for Christ” by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand of Romania. For his faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Pastor Wurmbrand was incarcerated for more than a dozen years and subjected to unthinkable torture, deprivations and other horrors. Yet he–andnd countless brave souls in Romania and in other dictatorships–not only endured but overcame hate with agape love. They radiated the love of Christ to those who mocked and hated them, thus overcoming evil with good, and their good example continues to inspire and astonish.

For me, Pastor Wurmbrand’s admonishment to the free believers in the West to speak out for the persecuted church was a direct challenge that simply could not be dismissed, wished away or trivialized. As some of you know, I am very active in a broad spectrum of human rights causes–from ending human trafficking, to protection of unborn babies from the violence of abortion, to refugee protection, to laws designed to end violence against women and condemnation of anti-Semitism. Why do this? Because of the moral imperative–a divine invitation–to be our brother and sister’s keeper.

For me, my commitment springs from my Catholic faith–but it is clear this elemental teaching can be found in all the world’s great religions and compels us to treat the disenfranchised and weak with compassion. My motivating scripture is Matthew 25. Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do likewise to me.” I, like every parliamentarian in this room, occupies a strategic position to alleviate suffering and pain which imposes on us an awesome responsibility to act.

A few years ago, a group of us in the U.S. created a new law entitled the “International Religious Freedom Act.” The uninformed cynic would argue that we should not mettle in other nation’s affairs. Some say to intervene is to be a nuisance. Some say we are arrogant. Let me note here none of these criticisms could be further from the truth. We did it (just as I wrote America’s anti-trafficking in persons law), because human rights are universal and cannot be abridged by selfish and cruel policies. We took bold action because we were inspired to act by brave individuals like Pastor Richard Wurmbrand of Romania, Alexander Solzhenitsyn of Russia, Armando Valladares of Cuba, Yuri Kosharovsky or Natan Sharansky, and Bishop Su of China. They never quit nor tired in their opposition to tyranny. Can anyone of us do less? Especially when we are the lawmakers?

The International Religious Freedom Act, like the anti-human trafficking law, with its extensive annual reports, intense scrutiny and sanctions, is a major irritant in the smooth conduct of everyday foreign policy. No apology should ever be made, however, for speaking truth to power, especially in defense of the innocent. Real respect for individuals and nations requires genuine honesty, which diplomatic niceties often obscure and crowd out. Real friends do not let their friends commit human rights abuses.

The International Religious Freedom Act created two new entities, one private and one governmental, the Commission on International Religious Freedom and the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom. They were created in the hope that the country by country analysis of the state of religious freedom would be accurate and the implementation of action plans would lead to reform.

A new Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom was created by the Act and the designation of “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) was also established for those states whose religious repression is “systematic, ongoing and egregious,” which includes torture, or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.

Current CPC countries include China, for its gross mistreatment of Tibetan Buddhists, the Uighers, Christians and Falun Gong, as well as Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan. Based on their poor record, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Turkmenistan are other possible CPC nations.

I think it is important to note that we wrote both the trafficking law and the religious freedom law in a way to foster, encourage and provide technical assistance to enable nations to matriculate from abusers to guarantors of human rights.

So, let this OSCE PA Conference on Religious Freedom be a call to action for each of us in our home countries to share and conform with internationally recognized norms and to rid our lands of religious persecution and intolerance.

As parliamentarians, let us work hard to enact new, enlightened laws to safeguard the right of religion and conscience.

Let us use our strategic position to investigate, ask tough questions back home, visit incarcerated believers, and press for an end to repression. One man or woman with conviction is worth a thousand with an interest.

Colleagues, we are the lawmakers, let’s make wise laws together, laws that will make a positive and sustainable difference.


Media contact

Filter Topics Open Close

Helsinki Commission Advances Human Rights, Demands f...

Oct 19, 2023

By Shannon Simrell, Senior Policy Advisor Between October 2-13, 11 Helsinki Commission staff joined approximately 1,400 representatives of OSCE participating States (pS) and civil society representatives in Warsaw, Poland in an annual review of the human rights records of OSCE States. U.S. leadership highlighted demands for accountability from Russia and Belarus for their human rights […]


United States Demonstrates Global Leadership on Ukra...

Jul 14, 2023

The Helsinki Commission’s four senior leaders helmed the United States’ bicameral, bipartisan delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly last week in Vancouver, Canada. Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), serving as Head of Delegation, was joined by Chairman Joe Wilson (SC-02) as Deputy Head of Delegation as well as Ranking Members […]

Press Releases

Helsinki Commission Chair and Co-Chair Lead Delegati...

Jul 10, 2023

WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Senator Ben Cardin (MD) and Helsinki Commission Chair Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02) led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the 30th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) in Vancouver, Canada from June 30-July 4. As Head of Delegation and Deputy Head of Delegation respectively, Senator Cardin and Representative Wilson welcomed the […]

Press Releases


Apr 28, 2023

WASHINGTON— The leadership of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Chairman Representative Joe Wilson (SC-02), Co-Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (MD), and Ranking Members Representative Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Senator Roger Wicker (MS) sent a letter to Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili urging her to intervene to break […]



Apr 27, 2023

The Putin regime has long used the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) to consolidate its power at home and abroad. Under the leadership of Patriarch Kirill, the ROC has explicitly endorsed Russia’s war on Ukraine, even blessing weapons for the invasion. Churches under the mantle of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) had long been viewed […]


North Macedonia’s Leadership of the OSCE in a ...

Feb 28, 2023

North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, including using the organization to condemn Russian aggression and hold the […]

Press Releases


Feb 24, 2023

Tuesday, February 28, 2023 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Streaming: North Macedonia has taken up leadership of the world’s largest regional security organization—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—a year into Putin’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Much of the OSCE’s focus over the past year has revolved around responses to the war, […]

Press Releases

U.S. Delegation to the OSCE PA presents Joint Statem...

Feb 24, 2023

WASHINGTON— Today, the U.S. Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA) endorsed the “Joint Statement of Action on the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s War Against Ukraine and the International Legal Order,” which was endorsed by the OSCE PA Bureau and published today at the conclusion of the […]

Press Releases

Steadfast Support for Ukraine: United States Delegat...

Feb 23, 2023

WASHINGTON – Today, the United States Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE PA), led by Senator Ben Cardin (MD), met with Mykyta Poturaiev, Ukraine’s Head of Delegation and additional representatives of the Ukrainian Rada in Vienna, Austria, along with the Heads of Delegation of Canada, Estonia, […]

Press Releases

Helsinki Commissioners Urge Austria to Deny Visas to...

Feb 15, 2023

WASHINGTON – Helsinki Commission leadership, Chairman Rep. Joe Wilson, Co-Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, and Rep. Steve Cohen, on February 10, sent a letter to Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg to reconsider granting visas to the Russian delegation to the Winter Meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, […]


OSCE’s 2022 Ministerial Council in Lodz: Russia Isol...

Dec 09, 2022

By Janice Helwig, Senior Policy Advisor, Demitra Pappas, Senior Advisor Department of State, Shannon Simrell, Representative of the Helsinki Commission to the U.S. Mission to OSCE Foreign Ministers and senior officials from the 57 participating States and 11 Asian and Mediterranean partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened the OSCE […]

Press Releases

Congressmen Cohen and Wilson Introduce Resolution Re...

Oct 28, 2022

WASHINGTON – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Commission’s Ranking Member, Congressman Joe Wilson (SC-02), today introduced a resolution recognizing October 30 as International Day of Political Prisoners. Congressman Cohen was recently named the Special Representative on Political Prisoners […]