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U.S. Department of State

Great Seal Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Remarks before Public Meeting of the Secretary's
Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad
Washington, DC, February 13 1997
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State

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I'm very glad to be with all of you. Some of you I have met in other guises, and I'm very pleased to be able to have this time with you this morning.
I was very interested when we released our Human Rights Reports a few weeks ago, and I think that having this meeting follow on in this way is very important. Frankly, I've never had an advisory committee before, so this is new for me, and I'm very glad to have this be the one.
I've just concluded some hearings on the Hill, and I was very interested at the number of times that I was in fact asked about the whole issue of religious persecution and the interest that has -- your existence, the creation of the committee -- what interest that has brought to people. I was very glad to be able to say that we would be meeting.
This has not been a particularly restful morning, unfortunately, with Pamela Harriman's funeral, which I have just come from, and my meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. So please forgive me if it's a little disjointed.
But I did particularly want to have a chance to come and tell you how important I thought that the work that you are doing really is for everything that we are doing in this country and for an understanding that is necessary that the issue of religious freedom belongs squarely in any comprehensive discussions that we should be having and are having about American foreign policy.
I think we all know this - but it's worth repeating - is that the right to profess and practice one's religion is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to ignore or dismiss violations of that right would degrade respect for human rights generally.
Second, that freedom of religion has an impact that goes far beyond individuals. The right to worship alone or with others encourages whole communities to flourish and grow. People who are free to develop their beliefs live by them and in their sharing, they enrich a society. That is clear and much clearer than those who are stunted in terms of their ability to practice their religious beliefs, and what it does to the societies in which they live.
Third, I think we all know this and need to remember it every single day: that freedom of religion is central to America's history and identity. Thomas Jefferson, whose own beliefs were far from orthodox, asked that only three of his many achievements be inscribed on his tombstone: Author of the Declaration of Independence, father of the University of Virginia and originator of a law insuring religious freedom in Virginia.
Jefferson understood, too, that the struggle for religious liberty could not end when one's own freedom was assured. He wrote that, "It behooves all who value liberty of conscience for themselves to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or that case may be by change of circumstances become their own."
Thus, support for freedom of religion was an original component of America's historic and continuing effort to promote democratic values and respect for human rights.
A lot of people came to this country in order to be able to enjoy that kind of religious freedom. The principle is the same whether our specific focus is the harassment of Christian, the persecution of Jews, the denial of rights to the Baha'is or the Buddhists, or violence against Islam or any other repression of legitimate religious rights.
In our efforts, this Advisory Committee, I think, really can and must play a significant role. For if we improve our understanding of the sources and triggers of religious persecution, if we have better information about when persecution begins and if we have thought more creatively about how to bridge differences and build tolerance, we will be much more effective as we champion religious liberty. Frankly, I think we all will be much more capable diplomats.
This commission can also help the State Department and its Secretary to better understand and provide appropriate support to religious figures who are seeking to build tolerance and prevent conflict and achieve reconciliation in their own countries.
I think, for example, of the role that has been played in the past by spiritual leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to the Dalai Lama to the Reverend Martin Luther King and Pope Paul John II, to a host of less renowned leaders, who have contributed so much to human development that has to come if political progress will come.
You all were selected to serve on this committee because of the wisdom and perspective you bring individually and collectively to the affairs of what is clearly a turbulent era. I appreciate very much your willingness to serve. I count on your advice whether that advice is provided by a consensus or through a dozen or more minority reports. That, after all, is tolerance. I look forward to spending much more time with you in the months ahead.
Finally, as all of you know, I learned only recently of the role that religious persecution has played in my own family's history. My childhood understanding of life under totalitarianist threat has already left me with very firm beliefs about the requirements of a free society, one of which is freedom of religion. Those beliefs have not changed. They don't need to change. If anything, I am more eager to work with you and to make our cooperation a living monument to all those who have suffered for their beliefs throughout history and all those who suffer today.
I thank you very, very much for the possibility of working with you, of learning from you, and doing everything we can in our time to make sure that persecution all over is ended, because all of us have suffered from it and there are many more who might and will suffer from it if we do not work together. In this brilliant group, I think we have the possibilities of doing that, and I pledge myself to work with you very eagerly.
Thank you.

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