A wealth of research shows that a society’s level of religious freedom is linked to its levels of critical social indicators, such as prosperity, stability and peace, the chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom told British parliamentarians.
Dr. Daniel Mark, chairman of USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan federal commission of the US government, told Britain’s All Party Parliamentary Group on international religious freedom last week at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament that religious freedom was therefore “a prerequisite for democracy, rather than the other way around”.
He added: “We are at a critical junction in our fight for freedom of religion or belief around the world.”
Not only is there data to back up the importance of religious freedom, there is also “growth, beyond NGOs, of national and international organisations committed to this issue”, he said.
Another reason to “seize this moment” to improve religious freedom globally, he said, “is the rise of authoritarianism in many places of the world”.
Mentioning China, the USCIRF chair pointed out that its ‘sinicization of religion’ has shown how economic liberalisation does not necessarily lead to more political freedom.
He was also critical of Russia. “[Vladimir] Putin’s Russia continues to set the standard for its region, raising the bar on religious repression with heretofore unforeseen measures, such as that country’s first banning of an entire religious group such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Dr. Mark said, adding how other former Soviet states like Kazakhstan are making similar moves.
‘Bulwark against totalitarianism’
He warned of an increase in cases where the demands of national security serve as a pretext for denying religious freedom. “We know it is an excuse because it is used against so many groups that cannot plausibly be construed as terrorist threats,” he said.
“Religious freedom is not just right but in the interest of regimes that wish to maintain stability,” he argued, adding that the oppression that authoritarian regimes perpetrate to supposedly maintain peace has the opposite effect, breeding resentment and resistance.
Dictators, he continued, resist religious freedom because it “stands as a bulwark against totalitarianism”, teaching people that their “whole lives do not belong to the state, that there’s a realm of life beyond the reach of the state”.
He added that religious freedom also opens the door to other freedoms such as expression, assembly and association – and it is perhaps “no surprise that religious freedom is the right, perhaps more than any other, for which people are most willing to suffer and die”.
He said that this made religious freedom foundational for the whole concept of human rights.