Asia Pacific Religious Freedom Forum - Freedom House Plenary Remarks

Asia Pacific Religious Freedom Forum
Plenary Remarks
Mark P. Lagon

I. Introduction 

Happy New Year to our hosts and attendees at the AP-RFF, here at this beautiful venue in Taoyuan! Thank you Mayor Cheng, for hosting us. We hear you are doing great things for innovation and revitalization in the city of Taoyuan. We hope that the conference reflects this same vigor for change. 

Vice President Lu, thank you for your leadership to promote interfaith cooperation and protection of belief by facilitating partnership between civil society, faith leaders, and government representatives. Your commitment to religious freedom reinforces the integrity of this pillar of democracy, and we thank your organization, the Democratic Pacific Union, for its efforts in establishing this important platform.   

A special thanks to our friends at ChinaAid, for assembling this company of individuals, organizations and nations so dedicated to sustaining the idea and practice of religious freedom across the Asia-Pacific. Bob Fu is certainly a living example of how to practice what you preach, through his years of work on behalf of religious freedom and rule of law in China. Thank you, Bob. 


Nations are most prosperous when governments respect and protect the inherent dignity of citizens.  

They must encourage a plurality of ideas and beliefs, to promote a dynamic and equitable civil society that openly embraces multiple faiths.  

Freedom House is grateful for the opportunity to present our rationale for citizens, faith leaders and government leaders to jointly promote religious freedom. We’ve seen this collaboration at work. Indeed, we often work with civil society partners at the front line of battles for religious liberty. We’ve worked with government partners to keep religious practitioners safe from harm, when we can, through our programs. We broadcast religious freedom challenges to the world through our publications in consultation with religious communities at risk. 

Today, we hope to give witness to those partnerships, to inspire ideas for collaboration between those assembled here in the name of freedom of belief.   

There are several key principles that inform how citizens and governments can best collaborate. At the most basic level, society must foster respect for an individual’s inherent human dignity, and the right to choose a religion – or not. By extension, that individual must choose to support a plurality of beliefs within their society, to publically express their faith – or not. 

This spirit of respect depends upon an environment where the freedom to assemble and express individual or corporate faith is uninhibited. Let us consider these elements in closer detail… building toward a model of collaboration in support of religious freedom for all… 

II. Dignity 

Our mutual belief in the dignity of the individual brought us all to this conference. Though we represent different national, ethnic, linguistic and religious origins, it is the undeniable principle that connects us all. This congregation of those committed to religious freedom is proof itself that we have all arrived – from our disparate points of origin – to a place where human dignity is truly universal.  Consider the common philosophy shared by these global figures, who invoke the centrality of human dignity to a functioning society - despite coming from vastly different societies: 

In accepting the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought way back in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi said: “A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity.”  

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in a 2010 sermon to the New Parliament at Westminster Abbey: “Shared dignity is the condition for what you could call 'civic warmth' – the sense of being able to trust not only immediate neighbors but the wider social fabric. If government is visibly working for dignity in citizenship, trust will follow.”  

The Dalai Lama said in April 1993: “Buddhism too recognizes that human beings are entitled to dignity, that all members of the human family have an equal and inalienable right to liberty, not just in terms of political freedom, but also at the fundamental level of freedom from fear and want.” 

Even within specific societies, those with dramatically opposing world views agree: 

George W. Bush said in his 2002 State of the Union Address: “We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.”  A very different president, Barack Obama, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2009 said: “Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.”  

Eleanor Roosevelt was a founding co-chair of Freedom House 75 years ago, after negotiating the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  The Declaration invokes dignity in its opening Article. About the drafting of this significant commitment between nations, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon wrote: 

“Mrs. Roosevelt…said that the word dignity had been considered carefully by the Human Rights Commission, which had included it in order to emphasize that every human being is worthy of respect…[In] the Declaration, Article 1…was meant to explain why human beings have rights to begin with.’'

This was possible due to an interregional, intercultural, and interfaith consensus on dignity as a premise.  

Of course, “to err is human.” History is littered with abhorrent interpretations of religious text – leading to regrettable misrepresentations of faith and misapplications of religious practice. In all societies, there are scenarios where such errors have led to a casting aside of human dignity, sacrificing or appropriating religious principles or practice for purposes of earthly power. We can all think of examples. 

Yet, these unfortunate scenarios underscore that dignity is as central to all faiths as it is to the secular universal principles captured in the Universal Declaration.  

As a professor of ethics and international affairs at a Jesuit university, 2 years ago I co-authored a book with Anthony Arend, Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions.  We attempt to define human dignity concretely, so that institutions and policies can be judged by how they promote or inhibit respect between citizens of different beliefs – political, religious, or otherwise.  

Consistent with multi-faith perspectives, human dignity has three characteristics which determine the best way to shape policies, and ultimately to inform models of collaboration in support of religious freedom. 

First, dignity depends on agency – the freedom of every human being to apply her or his gifts to their life’s work, and thrive.  As an Episcopalian Christian myself, I refer to these as “God-given gifts.”  Translating this notion into policy language, Martha Nussbaum calls them “capabilities” for development.  Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen responds to such capacities, citing agency as the link between the realms of civic freedom, and that of economic and social prosperity. Without agency, our gifts and capabilities are constrained. People must be able to choose their paths, to pursue whatever it is they have determined serves their best interest, and their values. 

Second, dignity depends on social recognition.  Francis Fukuyama was chided for once asking if the Cold War’s passing marked the end of history. Was democracy the final model? The best way to recognize diverse beliefs and identities within one body politic? While a struggle of models persists, his understanding of the individual within society is insightful: each person possesses a distinctive longing for recognition.  Radical individualism is a mirage. Human beings are not atomistic. They live in social communities. All human beings’ inherent worth must be protected by the society of which they are a part.

Third, dignity demands institutionalization, in other words, a formal platform for recognition and recourse -- a system of protection. Absent this, self-determination and social recognition are vulnerable to repression. The faith-based NGO leader Gary Haugen rightly suggests, “Law and treaties on paper…are all meaningless without tangible access to justice for marginalized or minority peoples subject to violence.” 

Without citizen trust in institutions of justice, it is difficult to build a society oriented toward religious freedom for all.  Where one group perceives the system as asymmetrical, or accruing particular benefits to another group at their own expense, the trust between individuals erodes, and mutual respect dissolves. This is bleak; but it need not be. The protection of each other’s agency and recognition depend on decisions we each make every day, as we interact with our neighbors, family members, or friends that hold perspectives different from our own.

This notion in aggregate is known as ‘pluralism.’ Pluralism supports conditions and systems in which two or more or sources of authority - including religious ones - coexist. 

III. Pluralism 

Pluralism takes practice. Both citizens and governments must learn to tolerate multiple value systems in society. This notion is reflected in the tenants of Conservative Judaism, which instructs adherents to, “eschew triumphalism with respect to other ways of serving God.” Many faiths exist, but there is not one that triumphs. So, governments must also eschew triumphalism with respect to privileging citizens along religious lines.  

In the crowd today is Mr. Harry Myo Lin, who represents the imperative of inter-faith collaboration to safeguard each citizen’s religious identity and practice. He works to build bridges between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma. He described the biggest hurdle to fulfilling the requirements of pluralism: “I think that the root cause of hate-speech is the lack of knowledge and trust between each group. I think that some people misuse people’s love for their religion; some use it as a political tool.” 

Harry’s observation reflects great wisdom. We must hope that mutual respect for different faiths is robust enough in each society, that religion cannot be used as a political tool to destroy pluralism, demote minority belief systems, and demolish social trust. 

In addition, the state must promote rule of law to protect the diversity that each and every society reflects. History is clear: repressing pluralism is an exercise in futility. This futility is reflected in blasphemy and apostasy laws that have harsh penalties, including imprisonment or death, such as in Pakistan. Pakistan National Assembly Representative Asiya Nasir has commented on the impunity for misapplication of such laws against minorities, noting that, “Not a single person, who misuses the laws against minorities, has ever been punished.” 

In a more positive example regarding this worrying state power, Indonesia has a blasphemy law that, “forbids anyone from deliberately, in public, expressing feelings of hostility, hatred, or contempt against religions with the purpose of preventing others from adhering to any religion, and forbids anyone from disgracing a religion.” The law is inclusive of all faiths, not endowing one with greater protection from blasphemy than another. However, the law suppresses the fundamental freedom of speech. In this way it is conditioned to protect religions at the cost of free expression. 

Malaysia also has a law that controls what people say and do to prevent blasphemies. Is this promoting pluralism? No. It is inclusive but it is not pluralist. It does not allow for the public to derive their own spiritual direction or social opinions, or to bring their beliefs into the public. Hate speech diminishes social trust. It should be discouraged by measured and honorable counter-arguments, the public forum must be uninhibited for this to happen. 

Pluralism, in practice, necessitates state policies of non-interference in the practice of a specific faith. The only viable and legitimate way the state must facilitate social cohesion is by creating and safeguarding ‘space’ for individuals to seek their own forms of enlightenment. Further, actors in society must work together to engage with the state, to prevent it from dividing and conquering, undermining fundamental freedoms such as association, assembly, expression, and conscience. 

The protection of these freedoms is a cause for collaboration because it accrues equal benefits to all citizens – including those working within a government. A nation’s ability to respect universal human rights depends on engagement of diverse ideas. In the long run, discussion moderates extremism. It is the difference of opinion and perspective that realize and deepen democratic ideals. 

This institutional commitment usually flows from a Constitution or foundational social contract between state and society that permits freedom of religion, and rejects official state religion. Taiwan is a shining example of both institutionalization of pluralism, and respect for religious freedom. For one thing, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has implementing authority for a law to manage non-profit associations and foundations--including those of a religious or spiritual nature. The government manages these organizations in a non-prejudiced manner, through predictable mechanisms that all citizens can easily access.  

For example, the Civic Organizations Law is exemplary of Taiwan’s state committing to use its power to protect individual agency and corporate privacy pertaining to the practice of faith and spirituality. The law permits places of worship to register with local authorities, and allows for such associations to operate as the personal property of their participants if they so choose. No believers are disappeared into the darkness of an extrajudicial prison for hosting a bible study in their home or gathering in a public park to practice Falun Gong group exercises.  

But such freedoms do not arise out of a vacuum; they must be demanded by the public and preserved by the state. In many cases, to strengthen pluralism and democracy, forms of transitional justice are required to facilitate the development of these dignity-based institutions. Again, to err is human, and many faiths preach forgiveness as a central tenant of their teachings.  

In the words of philosopher He Huaihong in his 2014 book on evolving Mainland Chinese ethics and morality: 

“A group that has been oppressed or abused must still retain the spirit of love; a group that has been treated unfairly must still want to uphold the principles of fairness. While a group must have the strength to protest [wrongdoing], it must also be scrupulous about remaining within the limits of moral permissibility. This requires deep reserves of spiritual strength.”  

An accountable state is a state that can be forgiven. A state that lacks accountability is therefore doomed toward civil strife, or even open conflict. We see this now with the unrighteous violence of the “fishball revolution” that unfolded in Hong Kong, indicative of deep need for accountability in maintaining the territory’s autonomy. We see this in the Chinese state’s repression of the religious practice of Uyghur Muslims. Rights and protections written into the Chinese law, are harshly violated in practice. The tyranny of state over religion is witnessed by PRC flags that fly over mosques. Tolerance for the peaceful practice of Islam is stigmatized in national press. International press are forbidden from shedding light on injustice in Xinjiang.  From increasing accountability to protect minority rights. In both cases, institutionalized methods to resolve disputes – such as elections and courts – are warped in a system that fundamentally lacks accountability, rather than reinforcing agency and recognition of all people. 

Minorities must be respected in a plural society, the state must not adopt preferential policies for certain groups based on religious affiliation – or non-religious affiliation. Again, as is the case today in China, only state-mandated religions and places of worship are authorized as legal. This is a classic example of anti-pluralism; the PRC’s monopoly on the public spiritual realm, and use of force to maintain it, evokes images of the Rome that so brutally sought to punish Christian converts and Jewish refugees within its borders. Obviously, the modern manifestation of this syndrome makes for a weak collaborative environment to protect religious freedom. 
There are certainly more constructive models for state-society collaboration. Though national-level policy advocacy can push open space for pluralism and protect fundamental freedoms, often, these efforts do not start at the national level.
The real change begins among neighbors. Then it expands into the community, and spills across regions. Then the wave washes over broader political constituencies. And finally, the state must listen. 

IV. Collaboration between State and Society to Strengthen Religious Freedom 

Partnerships between states, civil society groups, faith-based institutions, intergovernmental organizations, and businesses are essential to advance dignity and pluralism.  
My own experience in the fight against human trafficking reflects these partnerships -- partnerships to combat clear affronts to human dignity. Faith-based actors have played enormous roles in social movements to abolish this modern incarnation of slavery.  I was the United States’ Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons; CEO of a leading anti-trafficking nonprofit, Polaris; and cofounder of the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking with Coca Cola, Microsoft, Delta Airlines, and others.  
Some partnerships are truly transformative, helping the enslaved to reclaim their dignity, while some are defective, failing to address root problems. 
As a practitioner and scholar, I concluded that in order to combat labor and sex trafficking, partnerships need two “M’s” in particular.  First -- whether faith-based or secular, or whether in the public, private, or nonprofit spheres – partners need matching missions in order to truly help people before or after they are violated.  Second, motives matter.  Not only must partners’ missions align, their motives need to be sound and authentic.  Many institutions, whether states or companies or even at times some faith-based actors, purposefully distract people from systemic violation with other good works.  Partners must beware mere “window dressing” partnerships because they obscure insights into how to truly address repression.  

These 2 “M’s” are equally important to partnerships related to religious pluralism, tolerance, and freedom. In Burma, Freedom House is working with Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yangon, to convene inter-faith, inter-ethnic dialogues to “make a voice for religious rights” in a context where a military state has moved toward more democratic practices. Rather than cast stones at old institutions, the program will bring together faith groups and human rights organizations to work with the newly elected Parliament. Together, they hope to reform laws that support a stronger civil society, protection of rights, and religious freedom for all the citizens the government represents. The motives of both the faith 

leaders and elected leaders are similar: to bring peace and stability to Burma. The missions are complementary. This is a new partnership, and Freedom House looks forward to helping it bear fruit. This is an instructive model for collaboration between citizens, faith leaders, and those working within the state.   

Also instructive, is what not to do. I’ve already mentioned a few examples. 

The present situation in Mainland China stands as a parable for the antithesis of partnership.

The present situation in Mainland China falls as a model for state-society collaboration.

The present situation in Mainland China is emblematic of the nefarious practices we must all work together to overcome as an inter-faith community. 

Here are the facts: The state sanctions legal faiths, with party oversight of doctrine. The state targets groups that operate outside of these institutions, groups that seek to follow uninhibited paths of their own belief. The state only partners with NGOs that implement its vision, not those that espouse their own independent ideas on how to improve society. The state persecutes advocates of religious liberty, even if their advocacy is limited, for instance, to performing centuries-old religious rites in Tibet. The state security apparatus is used to control the religious; the legal system is unaccountable; little to no recourse exists for the persecuted. 

What have been the responses of political leaders? Government officials? Judges? Police? The reactions of these individuals in the realm of the state vary. However, the system compels compliance with repression. Only when individuals chose to act in favor of dignity and justice will partnerships be possible. After all, motives matter.    

The situation is not immune to demands for change. Remember, universal respect for religious freedom starts with neighbors. It expands into the community. It spills across regions, and eventually the state must listen. Then the state may have to reevaluate its goals for addressing religious freedom and pluralism, and its interactions with a civil society advocating for change. 

Mainland China is an extreme case of a state-society fracture on the issues of fundamental freedom. And yet, there is a compelling case for developing and articulating a public will for religious tolerance, despite the odds against it. 

V. Closing 

The reason we convene here has personal importance to me. One reason demonstrates the individual’s potential to convene like-minded friends in support of religious freedom. The other demonstrates the potential to engage with those in power to promote and protect religious freedom. I worked with another parishioner with very different politics from my own to launch a group at my own Episcopal Church in Virginia, called Anglicans Against Religious Persecution Abroad.  And, I was a staff person for the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives when the International Religious Freedom Act, creating diplomatic and watchdog functions in the government was enacted in 1998.  

We can each contribute effort to instituting freedom of religion in Asia, and beyond.  What I have shared with you today provide a lens for identifying strong and weak models for building coalitions to advance this all-important cause. Some of these strong models, such as Taiwan, offer positive progress in the development of pluralism and religious toleration. Yet, horrifying problems persist: violence and repression committed by state and by non-state entities against religious groups and women (sometimes in the name of religion); friction between different sects and faith communities standing in the way of peace and democratization; and use of blasphemy laws to repress religious pluralism and freedom of expression. There is much work left for us to do.

The main, final argument of my book, Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, is a the need for states, secular NGOs, faith-based institutions, intergovernmental organizations, corporations, and philanthropies to engage in an international, intercultural, interfaith dialogue on dignity and how to protect it in practice.  That is what we are here for: discussing best practices and deepening partnerships to advance religious liberty as a cornerstone of basic human dignity.  This conference has great promise to advance that aim concretely.  Thank you to all participants for coming to this conference that Freedom House is honored to cosponsor.