Bernard Cardinal Law
Chairman, International Policy Committee
United States Catholic Conference
December 7, 2000
Thirty-five years after the Second Vatican Council declared that "the human person has a right to religious freedom," hundreds of millions of people around the world still live in countries where this foundational right is not respected. While the end of the Soviet bloc brought a rebirth of religious liberty for many, from Sudan and Saudi Arabia to China and North Korea, government policies still reflect a deep intolerance of some or all forms of religious belief and expression. In other places, such as India, Indonesia, Nigeria and parts of the Balkans, guarantees of religious freedom too frequently are victims of the destructive interplay of ethnic, nationalist and religious tensions. We, in the United States, who so often take religious liberty for granted, must not forget that martyrdom is not a relic of another age, but is very much a reality in today's world.
As our nation seeks to use its enormous influence to affirm human dignity and promote human rights around the world, we must remember that religious freedom, as Pope John Paul II points out, is "a cornerstone of the structure of human rights." Religious freedom is not an arbitrary and subjective right but is one that defines fundamentally what it means to be human. Freedom of conscience and the freedom of individuals and religious bodies to practice their religion without external coercion are intimately connected to other fundamental freedoms. Limits on religious freedom invariably entail limits on other rights.
While the world is a very different place from what it was when the Second Vatican Council adopted its historic Declaration on Religious Freedom, the challenge of guaranteeing this God-given right remains. The new concern in this country for religious liberty abroad is a welcome development, particularly the new efforts by our government to give religious liberty the place it deserves in U.S. foreign policy. I pray that these efforts will contribute to more widespread respect for religious freedom in the many places where it remains little more than a dream.