Michael Gerson

Events such as the murder of Bhatti elicit a difficult balance of attitudes. Some view every such killing as a confirmation of violence as the essence of Islam, thereby feeding the apocalyptic civilizational struggle that extremists fondly seek. Others, particularly in diplomatic circles, downplay or ignore the role of religion in international affairs -- an awkward topic on which they know little.

The alternative to a conflict of civilizations or uncomfortable silence is the steady, principled promotion of religious freedom. Freedom of conscience is not only an expression of respect for human dignity; it is essential to the consolidation of democratic institutions. Nations that honor religious freedom are far more likely to respect other rights. Nations that allow or encourage the oppression of religious minorities are enabling and rewarding extremism.

American leverage in these matters is limited, but it is worth applying what we have -- something the Obama administration, to this point, has not done. Its National Security Strategy avoids the topic. It did not appoint an ambassador at large for international religious freedom -- a congressionally mandated position -- until a year and a half after it took office. (The confirmation of that ambassador, by the way, is now held up by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.) "This has not gotten," said Clinton at a recent hearing, "the level of attention and concern that it should. ... I think we need to do much more to stand up for the rights of religious minorities."

This was precisely what Bhatti was doing -- defending the rights of believers in every faith, not just his own. But the source of his courage in the cause of pluralism was clear: "These Taliban threaten me. But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of (the) cross, and I am following the cross."

Which he followed all the way to the end.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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