Washington (BWA)--Religious intolerance has become more severe and widespread, according to Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. Johnson Cook made these remarks during the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) Window on the World (WOW) Banquet in Arlington, Virginia, in the United States, on March 3.
The ambassador noted that several dominant trends characterize restrictions on religious freedom -- government repression of religious rights and religious groups, violent extremist attacks that exacerbate sectarian tensions, lack of rule of law regarding violations of religious freedom, apostasy and blasphemy laws, rising anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, and restrictions on religious attire and expression.
Johnson Cook said that "religious freedom is pivotal to peaceful, prosperous and secure societies," and that "many conflicts in the world today are fueled by religious intolerance, with governments sometimes exacerbating religious tensions through inaction, restrictive religious legislation, court judgments, and police enforcement targeting certain religious groups." She pointed to research showing that a "third of the global population live where there are government restrictions on religion or where there are acts of social hostility targeting religious groups."
"High levels of government restriction on religious freedom and societal violence go hand in hand," she emphasized. "Where there is religious freedom, there is more stability" and "a healthy, strong, and vibrant civil society can only exist where freedom of religion is respected and protected."
The ambassador appealed to international religious organizations such as the BWA "to build bridges across religious differences [and] to work together against religious hatred, violence and repression." Faith groups and their leaders, she said, "are often best positioned to spread the message of tolerance and reconciliation" as often they are a "crucial thread in the economic and political fabric of society." Religious organizations such as the BWA "have a stake in having the freedom to operate" and can do so by "promoting mutual respect and freedom for their own faith and for others."
Johnson Cook, an ordained Baptist pastor, is the first woman, first African American and the third person appointed as US Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom. The position was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the US, and to advocate on the behalf of individuals viewed as persecuted on account of religion. In addition to the post of ambassador, the act led to the creation of a bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Special Adviser on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council.
Tony Peck, BWA regional secretary for Europe and general secretary for the European Baptist Federation, told the banquet audience of both the blessings and challenges faced by churches in Europe on the integration of immigrants, particularly refugees, to the continent. Refugees from Myanmar, for instance, have had profound influence on Baptist churches in Denmark, Finland and Norway as many of these refugees were already Baptist Christians prior to leaving their home country.
Bonny Resu, BWA regional secretary for Asia and general secretary of the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation spoke to the difficulties of refugees in Asia, such as the more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand, many of whom are displaced people without adequate shelter, educational, health care and other social services.
The WOW banquet preceded meetings of the BWA Executive and auxiliary committees from March 4-7 at the BWA international offices in the Washington, DC, suburb of Falls Church in Northern Virginia.
Issues to be discussed include the 2015 Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, the Baptist Youth World Conference to be held in Singapore in 2013, and proposed theological dialogues with the Orthodox Church and Pentecostals. The recipient of the 2012 BWA Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award will also be announced.
Among the groups meeting are leaders of the Men's, Women's and Youth departments, as well as the Membership Committee that will consider applications from Baptist groups to hold membership within the BWA.