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Intersection of Faith and Freedom

Richmond Group That Promotes Religious Tolerance Presents Listing of Top 10 Issues

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 15, 2005; Page B11

The Council for America's First Freedom has released its first Top 10 List of religious freedom issues in the United States and other countries.

The selections are based on developments in 2004 and were determined by a panel of 25 scholars and religious observers, people of a variety of faiths and political positions, said Stephen Elliott, executive director of the Richmond-based organization, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes religious freedom worldwide.

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The purpose of the list was to highlight the most important issues for discussion by schools, congressional leaders and representatives to the United Nations and other international organizations, he said.

The underlying principle is the democratic concept of the free expression of religion without the interference of government, said Elliott, whose 21-year-old organization was named to honor the first right afforded U.S. citizens in the Bill of Rights. According to the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." A precursor to that amendment, ratified in 1789, was the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson.

In 1993, at the council's urging, Congress and President George H.W. Bush designated Jan. 16 as National Religious Freedom Day.

Americans view religious freedom "as a fundamental, innate human right, but it's not recognized as a human right in many nations around the world," Elliott said.

Participants on the panel included Mariane Pearl, widow of slain of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; Edwin Gaustad, analyst of American religion and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley; Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville; Tommy Baer, former president of B'nai B'rith International; and Shabbir Mansuri, founding director of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, Calif.

Here is the council's list of Religious Freedom Issues of 2004, released Jan. 7. The last two issues were listed as examples of positive developments.

1. Extremist Islam

Panelists note that while "mainstream Muslims" emphasize that Islam is a religion of faith, reconciliation and peace, radical groups throughout the world commit violent acts in the name of Islam. "Radical Muslims' intolerance of other faiths based on a restricted interpretation of Islamic principles threatens religious freedom around the globe," the panelists concluded.

2. Civil conflict

in Sudan

The 20-year civil war in Sudan between the Muslim-controlled government in the north and Christians and animists in the south has left more than 2 million dead, primarily from famine and disease. This week, the Sudanese government and rebel forces signed a comprehensive peace agreement that gives the southern part of Sudan religious and political autonomy.

3. Church involvement

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