International Religious Freedom


Having been the quintessential victims of religious persecution over the centuries, Jews know what happens when otherwise good people stand silently by in the face of discrimination and oppression of others. Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation, we are obligated to view ourselves as if each of us was personally brought forth out of Egypt. This instruction, along with the commandment "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9), serves as a call for the Jewish people to rise up against slavery and tyranny in our own time. The Reform Jewish Movement is therefore committed to protecting religious freedom for all the world's inhabitants by raising awareness about and speaking out against religious persecution wherever it exists.

The Reform Movement has been an outspoken and steadfast advocate for people around the globe who suffer torture, slavery, starvation, and death because of their religious identity. Consistent with past resolutions on human rights in general and religious persecution in specific countries-including Oppression of Racial and Religious Minorities (1935), Opposition to Communism, Fascism, and Nazism (1939), Commitment to Africa (1999), and Religious Persecution in China (2001)-we have worked in coalition with other religious and human rights groups to bring peace to Sudan, freedom of religion to religious minorities in China, and justice to women in Afghanistan. The Jewish community was successful in the Soviet Jewry Campaign because non-Jews rallied to our cause and the U.S. led other governments to weigh in. We can do no less for those persecuted today, and with the support and commitment of the United States, Canada, and other governments, we can be successful.

In the Holiness Code in Leviticus, we are commanded, "You may not stand idly by when your neighbor's blood is being shed" (Leviticus 19:16). We are committed to fulfilling our obligation as Jews to speak out on behalf of all who are persecuted.

In 1998, the United States Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, intended to "express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion," "to authorize United States actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries," and to create a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to make recommendations to the President on how to enhance U.S. effectiveness in this work. The Reform Jewish Movement played a central role in the successful efforts to pass this legislation, and the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was the director of our Movement's Religious Action Center, Rabbi David Saperstein.

The law calls on the United States government:

  • "To condemn violations of religious freedom and to promote and to assist other governments in the promotion of the fundamental right of religion";
  • "To be vigorous and flexible, reflecting both the unwavering commitment of the United States to religious freedom and the desire of the United States for the most effective and principled response in light of the range of violations of religious freedom by a variety of persecuting regimes and the status of the relations of the United States with different nations";
  • "To work with foreign governments that affirm and protect religious freedom in order to develop multilateral documents and initiatives to combat violations of religious freedom and promote the right to religious freedom abroad"; and
  • "To use and implement appropriate tools in the United States foreign policy apparatus, including diplomatic, political, commercial, charitable, educational, and cultural channels, to promote respect for religious freedom by all governments and peoples."

The law calls on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to evaluate "United States government policies in response to violations of religious freedom" and "consider and recommend options for policies of the United States government with respect to each foreign country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom, including diplomatic inquiries, diplomatic protest, official public protest, demarche of protest, condemnation within multilateral fora, delay or cancellation of cultural or scientific exchanges, delay or cancellation of working, official, or state visits, reduction of certain assistance funds, termination of certain assistance funds, imposition of targeted trade sanctions, imposition of broad trade sanctions, and withdrawal of the chief of mission."

The concerns regarding religious liberty expressed in the International Religious Freedom Act echo the ideas articulated in international agreements and declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which entered into force in 1976 and has been ratified by the United States, Canada, and 140 other nations). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, declares that "everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion"and that "in those states in which ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language."

Despite these agreements, religious freedom is under attack all over the world. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has identified twenty-two countries whose policies and practices have generated concern about systemic violations of religious freedom. Among these, China, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam have been designated by the U.S. Department of State as "countries of particular concern" (CPCs).

The country reports and policy recommendations submitted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are invaluable tools for determining U.S. foreign policy. Full compliance with all of the Commission's recommendations on the part of the United States Administration is, of course, unlikely because the Administration must consider other diplomatic and political concerns. Still, although there are instances in which the President has agreed with the Commission's findings and the U.S. Department of State has implemented its recommendations, too often the Administration has failed to respond appropriately to the violations of religious freedom documented by the Commission.

THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Call upon the governments of the world to:
    1. End all persecution on the basis of religious beliefs or practices;
    2. Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and abide by the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and
    3. Hold themselves and other governments to commitments arising from their ratification of international agreements as they apply to religious freedoms; without the creation of exceptions
  2. Call upon the United States and Canadian governments to support religious freedom around the world and take appropriate action when there are violations of religious freedom; and
  3. Call upon the United States government to implement the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, including but not limited to:
    1. Engaging in high-level dialogue with foreign governments aimed at addressing religious persecution;
    2. Facilitating reform in countries that restrict religious freedom by providing training for lawyers, lawmakers, and judges;
    3. Encouraging other governments to ratify agreements to uphold religious freedom and other human rights and holding participating governments to commitments made by their ratification of international agreements;
    4. Placing sanctions on foreign governments when ongoing systemic persecution persists;
    5. Enhancing the training of foreign service officers and U.S. Administration and legislative officials about the role of religion in the world's varied societies and the problems of religious persecution; and
    6. Supporting and cooperating with organizations and coalitions working for religious freedom and providing humanitarian and legal support to victims of religious persecution.