WHY DON'T YOU AMERICANS mind your own business? That, in essence, is what the French thought the other day when a State Department officer took issue with President Jacques Chirac's proposal to outlaw the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls, large crosses by Christians, and skullcaps by Jewish boys in public schools.
John Hanford, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom, effectively called on the French to understand that such displays, so long as they are a "heartfelt manifestation" of people's beliefs and not acts of provocation, constitute "a basic right that should be protected." A French official was offended, as the French can be, and told the New York Times that "never have you heard a French diplomat comment on an internal debate in the United States."
But the French surely know by now that part of what it means to be an American diplomat is to comment on matters "internal" to other countries. Indeed, Hanford made his remarks about the French proposal in response to a question during a press conference on the State Department's annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide.
The report identifies (1) totalitarian and authoritarian regimes that aim to control religious belief and practice (Burma, China, Cuba, and North Korea, among others); (2) regimes that, while not trying to control minority religions, are hostile to certain ones (Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan, for example); (3) nations that have laws favoring certain religions and thus place others at a disadvantage (Belarus and Brunei); and (4) nations that stigmatize certain religions by wrongly associating them with dangerous "cults" or "sects" (Belgium, Germany, and, yes, France).
The actual infringements on religious liberty run the gamut from outright torture and execution (Burma) to job discrimination (Sudan).
The authors of the report weren't fooled by the presence of laws discouraging discrimination on the basis of religion. Looking more closely, the authors found countries that have such laws yet have failed to enforce them in cases involving minority religions. The list includes Bangladesh, Egypt, Guatemala, and Nigeria.
This is the fifth straight year the State Department has issued a report on international religious freedom. This year's report, like the previous four, makes clear that millions of people around the world are being discriminated against and persecuted on account of what they believe.
No other country issues reports on international religious freedom. But, then, no other country is quite like ours. America was conceived in liberty, especially religious liberty, and our commitment to religious liberty only has deepened over the years. Moreover, because the Declaration of Independence teaches that liberty is the birthright of everyone everywhere, we long have felt compelled to let other nations know that truth and encouraged them to embrace it. And in doing so, we often have emphasized the right of conscience.
The cause of religious freedom is worth our pressing--especially for two reasons. The first is that religious liberty often involves other liberties, such as those of assembly and expression. They are, as Hanford said, "the seedbed of democratic development." To the extent we promote religious freedom, we also are promoting democracy. And--the second reason--to the extent there are more democracies, there will be fewer state patrons of terrorism, fewer places where terrorists can train and organize.
Advancing religious liberty internationally isn't easy, nor is progress guaranteed. But the world will be in America's debt to the extent that our efforts expand the number of nations in which freedom of conscience is honored and protected. As Hanford said the other day, "This is part of our nation's work in the world, of which we can all be proud."
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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