Round Table For Religion

Rome has long cultivated an image as a gathering point for religious power. And of course that power at times has been biased toward a single viewpoint. Not so the "Fourth Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom," organized by the Washington, D.C. based Institute on Religion and Public Policy and its president Joseph K. Grieboski. Almost 80 parliamentarians and a handful of nongovernmental organizational representatives (the Liberty editor among them) met at the Pontifical Gregorian University November 28-30, 2006, for a dynamic exchange of views on some of the major freedom issues facing churches and governments today.

While the conference drew heavily on the university and Catholic officials in Rome, including Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, its genius was the dynamic between the various parliamentarians and the wide array of diplomats representing their national viewpoint in Rome. Countries such as South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Turkey, Russia, Slovakia, Sudan, Taiwan, Lithuania, Liberia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Kenya, Togo, and Burkina Faso interacted in a dialogue that revealed both common concerns and real differences in handling sensitive issues of religious freedom and public morality.

Day one included an extensive discussion on how faith and politics need to respond to the global AIDS crisis—a crisis more and more seen as a security issue, since it leads to societal instability. There is an admirable agreement by all faith groups to make a practical contribution to civil efforts to educate and treat. However, I was struck by how reticent all are to express their very real theological views on the underlying behaviors that lead to AIDS. It was left to Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin from the Moscow Patriarchate (Eastern Orthodox) to remind all that while his church offers the Communion cup to all, and all freely kiss the icons without concern about AIDS transmission, they are very clear about the fact that sinful behavior often lies behind transmission of the disease. For this intrusion of morality he was roundly condemned by all, even from the lectern. Not a good omen for the continuing moral voice of faith communities.

Day two discussion centered on freedom of religion and religious expression in the aftermath of the Danish cartoon furor and the ongoing war on terror. This is a serious dynamic, and much more than freedom of the press is at stake. Michael Marshall, editor in chief for United Press International, said the debate is just beginning and that we are on the slippery slope of regulating all religious expression, not just dangerous manifestations. On the defensive, Ahmed Younis, national director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C., posited that the answer to Islamic violence is not less religiosity and looking to so-called moderates who may be seen as secularists by fellow Muslims, but instead a reclaiming of correct Islamic views. How effective this might be we shall see; but Liberty must always argue for the right of religious expression and decry a limiting of core religious views. Naturally all religious expression is subject to civil laws against violence and other abuses of the rights of others, but there must not be arbitrary restriction of religion or inhibition to its free expression.

The ambassador from Serbia warned against a developing threat to religion in many ostensibly democratic states, where a religious tyranny of the majority can easily develop. This is a real threat today, even in the United States. We must be on guard. The stakes are very high. But as Ambassador Oded Ben Hur from the State of Israel said, referencing his own country's situation, "We don't have the luxury of being pessimistic."

By Lincoln E. Steed, Liberty Editor
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."