Ambassador Nolan’s Op-Ed on The Importance of Religious Freedom to Democracies

The following appeared in the January 16, 2018 edition of the Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd

Op-Ed by Edwin R. Nolan
Ambassador of the United States of America

The Importance of Religious Freedom to Democracies

On this day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly adopted the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, more commonly referred to as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Authored by Thomas Jefferson, the legislation was radical for its time. Its passage brought to an end a ten-year campaign to disestablish the Church of England as Virginia’s official state church and guarantee religious freedom to people of all faiths. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was so central to the idea of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief that it was the foundation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which promised religious freedom for all Americans.

To commemorate the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, U.S. Presidents proclaim January 16 Religious Freedom Day. On this day, the U.S. government reaffirms its commitment to promote respect for religious freedom and diversity; to encourage accountability for religious-based violence; and to urge other governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities and religious practice.

Advocating for religious freedom and tolerance is a critical foreign policy goal for the U.S. government. We protect and advocate for religious freedom with the deep conviction that religious freedom is a universal human right, instrumental to global peace, security, stability, and prosperity. No nation can fulfill its potential when individuals are denied the ability to express their innermost beliefs or to live peacefully in accordance with their conscience.

As Secretary Tillerson has said, “No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, or face discrimination because of his or her beliefs.” Yet 74 percent of the world’s population lives in countries which place severe restrictions on religious liberty. According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of the world’s countries enforce blasphemy laws and over one in ten countries have penalties for apostasy. Such severe government restrictions on religious freedom are inconsistent with international human rights and the U.S. government calls for their repeal.

Religious freedom underpins a democratic society.  It allows for the inclusion of voices that do not share the majority values, policies, or approaches. In a world where over 80 percent of individuals hold a religious belief, the suppression of religious freedom and freedom of expression can lead to the radicalization of individuals and the emergence of violent extremist organizations. An open marketplace of ideas is the best way to promote religious freedom.

Protections for religious freedom can reduce the likelihood of armed conflict, violent extremism, and mass atrocities. Respect for religious freedom reinforces and is reinforced by respect for the related freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Countries that protect religious freedom often have healthier populations, more educational opportunities for women, and higher levels of earned income for both women and men, among other benefits. In fact, research shows a close correlation between respect for religious freedom and a nation’s economic prosperity.

Well known for its religious tolerance, Suriname is famous for having a mosque and a synagogue located next to each other. But Suriname’s respect for religious freedom in not just symbolic. Suriname, with its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious society, believes religious freedom is a right afforded to all citizens, and its constitution and laws guarantee and protect that right. Surinamese civil society organizations such as The Inter-Religious Council support freedom of religious practices, encourage mutual respect among religious groups, and meet regularly to discuss planned interfaith activities and positions on government policies.

Suriname’s commitment to religious freedom is a commitment to liberty.

The United States stands with Suriname in defense of religious freedom, so that people may freely practice (or refrain from practicing) a faith, belief, or religion – free from persecution or fear.