Faith and Freedom

Why does Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 2011 World Day of Peace focus on “religious freedom as the path to peace”? The connection might not seem immediately obvious. Religious liberty is often thought of as a human rights concern, not a security issue.

It is both. There are currently major armed conflicts in 16 locations in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Major armed conflicts are the world’s worst wars, those in which over 1,000 people were directly killed by combatants in the preceding year.


Nine of those 16 places where the world’s worst wars rage are countries that are among the world’s worst violators of religious freedom: Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Myanmar (Burma), Afghanistan, Somalia, India, Turkey and Sri Lanka. Each year the U.S. Commission on International Reli-gious Freedom reports on the countries where religious freedom is either violated or not adequately protected by the state.

Two more of those major armed conflicts have major religious dimensions, in the Philippines and Israel. Even though the state does not officially persecute in these cases (and these countries are not on any of the commission’s watch lists), religious minorities often describe themselves as feeling persecuted. They are allowed to worship, but they feel their religious affiliation is part of the cause of their second-class citizenship.

The Global Peace Index ranks the peacefulness of a country by a variety of measures beyond major armed conflicts, including violent demonstrations, political instability, number of people in jail, homicides and size of internal security forces. All of the five least peaceful countries and a majority of the 10 worst-scoring countries on the Global Peace Index are also among the countries with the world’s poorest records of religious freedom. Conversely, all of the world’s 30 most peaceful countries have good records for religious freedom, and none are on any of the religious freedom watch lists. The 2010 Human Security Report notes that “Four of the world’s five deadliest conflicts—in Iraq, Afghan-istan, Pakistan and Soma-lia—involve Islamist insurgents,” who reject religious freedom.

Is it merely a coincidence that warring countries repress religious freedom while peaceful countries do not? No. In academia we note that correlation is not causation, and violence is usually overdetermined. Wars and violence have many causes—routinely economic and political, at times intensified by religious factors. The problem is not religion per se, which is neither always peaceful nor always violent. The question is: Under what conditions will what sorts of religions aid peace or war? Religious freedom is key.

Where states repress religious groups, violence often ensues—violence by the state against religious minorities, violence by majority groups who take their cues from state policy and violence by religious minorities trying to protect their communities and beliefs. Daniel Philpott, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, identifies two important variables related to whether religions will aid war or peace: differentiation and political theology—in other words, institutions and ideas. Where religious freedom is secure, state and religious institutions are autonomous, separate and draw on their own sources of authority, and peace is likely. Neither party uses violence to subdue the other, and minority religious groups are likewise secure from repression, so they also do not seek violent redress. When state and religious authority overlap or are merged, trouble begins. Even if the merger is consensual, if the political ideas of the state religion are intolerant or exclusionary of other traditions, conflict ensues, as other religious groups seek protection from repression.

The pope is right in noting that religious freedom is a security issue, and that peace depends upon it. The U.S. government has done more than most, issuing annual reports on the state of religious freedom in every country. This is an important contribution. But the United States has special responsibilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christians in Iraq are now worse off than they were before the U.S. invasion and occupation, under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The United States must do more than issue reports to build peace.

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