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11/13/04 - AMERICA AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM - 2004-11-15

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast the whole day, then break the fast after sundown at a special dinner called Iftar. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell hosted such a dinner for a group of Muslims. "As the Iftar welcomes all in a spirit of brotherhood," said Mr. Powell, "so America has been open to all, welcoming to all -- as we can see in the diverse and thriving Muslim community in America today."

America's commitment to religious liberty is older than the U.S. itself. Many of the first European settlers in America were fleeing religious persecution. They cherished religious freedom as an inalienable human right.

The first article in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights begins with these words, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." No one, says President George W. Bush, "should ever try to impose religion on our society":

"I think the great thing that unites us is the fact that you can worship freely if you choose and. . .you don't have to worship. And if you're a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you're equally American. That is such a wonderful aspect of our society. And it is strong today and it will be strong tomorrow."

But as Secretary of State Powell has pointed out, "too many people in our world are still denied their basic human right of religious liberty":

"Some suffer under totalitarian regimes, others under governments that deliberately target or fail to protect religious minorities from discrimination and violence."

In September of this year, the U.S. State Department named Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Vietnam as "countries of particular concern" for their violations of religious freedom. "Defending the sacred ground of human conscience," says Secretary of State Powell, "is a natural commandment to all mankind. And America will always heed this call."