"Among the most fundamental of . . . universal values is religious freedom," U.S.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns emphasized in remarks to an audience of six hundred U.S. diplomats at the Appeal of Conscience Seminar's 30th anniversary held recently in Arlington, Virginia. "Our own Founding Fathers made religious freedom the first freedom of the Constitution -- giving it pride of place among those liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights."
Under Secretary Burns' remarks coincide with increased concern about the safety and welfare of religious communities in many countries. President Barack Obama has stated, "Our nation's enduring commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all who are denied the ability to choose and live their faith."
Emphasizing the global challenge, Mr. Burns noted that "Advancing religious freedom is both an age-old goal and a modern challenge. From the oppression that groups like the Baha’i face in Iran or the growing legal pressure that conservative Muslim women in France confront over covering their faces publicly, to attacks on the Sufi, Shia, and Ahmadiyya holy sites in Pakistan and against Christians in Iraq, Egypt and Burma, to the harsh restrictions placed on Tibetan Buddhists in China, the global advance of religious freedom faces many obstacles."
The United States grounds its promotion of religious freedom in international and domestic laws, declarations, covenants and norms. "These are not only American rights," Under Secretary Burns said. "They are the rights of nations and people around the world -- enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and guaranteed by the laws and constitutions of many nations."
He also argued that religious freedom includes the right to share one's faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to raise one's children in one’s faith, to change one’s religion -- by choice, not coercion, or to practice no religion at all.
Many governments and organizations respect religious freedom and religious diversity. Under Secretary Burns highlighted the public calls of the Grand Muftis in Syria and Turkey for tolerance towards Christians and Jews, and commended Spain for appointing special prosecutors on hate crimes.
Under Secretary Burns assured his audience that "The United States will continue to build bridges to promote international religious freedom," and invited each participant to find "throughout your own careers, a way to advance this great endeavor."