Religious Freedom: The Lessons of History for a Modern World

On October 27, the United States observed International Religious Freedom Day.This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1998 enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act, co-sponsored by then-Senator and now Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback.

Freedom of religion is at the very core of the American experience and is a fundamental human right for every person on earth.  Nearly 400 years ago, Europeans escaping religious persecution settled in the land that would become the United States.  Being of different religious backgrounds and remembering the hardships they suffered for their faiths, America’s founders understood that the best way to protect religious liberty was to keep government and religion separate.  Similarly, the land we now know as Uzbekistan has been home across the centuries to people of many faiths living in harmony, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Respect for religious diversity is thus a value deeply rooted in the history of both our nations.

President Mirziyoyev has launched a program of positive reforms to create space for greater religious tolerance and freedom.  He has offered amnesty to religious prisoners, opened new mosques, and expanded religious educational opportunities.  He has advanced the idea of education and enlightenment to bring the rich Islamic intellectual tradition of Uzbekistan’s past to the modern world.

The United States applauds these encouraging steps.  This summer, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo acknowledged Uzbekistan’s progress at the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held in Washington, D.C.  During his visit to Uzbekistan a few short weeks ago, Ambassador Brownback praised Uzbekistan’s efforts to date and recognized its potential to emerge as a leader for the region and a leading partner for the United States.

On this day, the United States commends Uzbekistan for its ongoing pursuit of greater religious freedom for all, not only because it is the right course of action for the country and its people, but also because it is simply the right thing to do.

As remarkable as these changes are, there will always be more to be done to advance religious freedom and tolerance, here and in countries around the world, including my own.  History teaches that where religious freedom is not protected, instability and violent extremism have greater opportunity to take root.  A nation where people of all faiths may openly practice and share their beliefs, freely read and discuss their sacred texts, and peacefully gather in places of worship is a nation that may prosper and flourish from the collective wisdom of generations of enlightened exchange.  That is why at home and abroad, Americans continue to stand with those seeking to live their lives openly, freely, and peacefully according to their faith. Americans of all faiths and political persuasions are united in their steadfast support for religious freedom around the world, while we unite with heavy hearts to root out the violent bigotry espoused by rogue elements of our own society.

On this day, we are mindful that there are far too many around the world deprived of religious liberty, even as intolerance has once again claimed innocent victims from among the faithful.  We reaffirm our stance that all people, in every country, deserve to exercise their right to live peacefully according to their conscience: to be free to worship, practice, share, and express their beliefs as they choose, and to live in harmony with people of all faiths.