In 1621, the Plymouth colonists joined with the Wampanoag Indians in a celebratory thanksgiving feast to reflect on their often difficult circumstances and their many blessings. As a nation, we have faced immense challenges since that first Thanksgiving Day, but throughout the triumphs and tragedies, we have always been able to join together as Americans to give thanks. Today, many of us look forward to football games, turkey dinners and meeting distant friends and family. In our land of plenty, it is easy to focus on our current blessings and take for granted some of the foundational values of this great country, the very values that bind us together as individuals. One such value is religious freedom—a cornerstone of democracy and the first of all freedoms.
Across the world, many are denied this fundamental right. We have traveled a long, difficult path to create and sustain our free and fair society; others have a long way to go. Nations like Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba still play host to particularly egregious violations of religious freedoms.
In Saudi Arabia, freedom of religion does not exist and is not recognized or protected under the country’s laws. Citizens are denied the freedom to choose or change their beliefs, and citizens who do not adhere to the officially sanctioned practices face severe repercussions at the hands of the Saudi religious police, or "muttawas." Prabhu Isaac, an Indian Christian in Saudi Arabia, is one of many who have experienced the horrific reality of a society without protections for religious expression. Isaac awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Saudi muttawas raiding his home. The muttawas confiscated Isaac’s computer, photographs, Bibles and songbooks and then separated he and his wife for more than three hours of austere interrogation before taking Isaac away to prison. Isaac spent more than six months in a Saudi prison before being deported to India.
In some areas of China, authorities use threats, extortion, interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture to harass leaders of religious groups. Practitioners who refuse to recant their beliefs are sometimes subjected to horrific treatment in prisons and "reeducation" through labor camps. Chinese Pastor Gong Shengliang, the leader of the South China Church, was sentenced to death in 2001 because of his beliefs. His case has been reduced to ‘life in prison,’ but he has been repeatedly beaten inside the prison and now suffers from internal injuries and has lost the hearing in one ear. Gong remains in prison today.
In Cuba, the Ministry of Interior continues to control and monitor religious activities and to use surveillance, infiltration and harassment against religious groups, clergy and laypersons. State authorities restrict the importation and distribution of religious literature and materials, and monitor church-run publications. Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, a blind religious and social rights activist, gathered with friends to pray for a hospitalized reporter and to advocate for freedom of religion and speech. A rapid response unit of local security forces soon descended upon the group, beating them ferociously before taking them into custody. Carlos suffered a particularly severe blow to the head, and has continued to report ill-health and mistreatment at the hands of prisoner authorities. After a 2 ½ year pretrial detention, Carlos finally received a hearing on April 26, 2004, and was released, although his freedom remains threatened today.
In addressing religious freedom, it is clear that we must do better. In 2003, I created the now bicameral Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom. In this Working Group, which I now co-sponsor along with House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-MO), a large number of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) concerned about religious freedom meet monthly with a core group of Congressional staff to stay abreast of domestic and international religious freedom concerns.
The Working Group is casting light on these issues that have for too long been hidden in the dark, and we greet each heroic advance in the area of religious liberty with great hope and thankfulness. One such area of hope is the progress made in Iraq through the Iraqi Constitutional process.
Although terrorists threatened both the lives and future of the free Iraqi people, millions boldly exercised their fundamental right to vote. The Iraqi Constitution holds revolutionary potential, not only to enshrine in law the freedom of religious expression for law-abiding citizens, but also to establish a bulwark of freedom against the enemies of tolerance and individual liberty. The constitution’s provisions, which protect religious freedom of expression and conscience, make it one of the most progressive governing documents in the Muslim world and the Middle East.
The new Iraqi Constitution is not perfect, but it is promising. Though the old Iraqi Constitution vowed to protect religious freedoms, it represented little more than a piece of paper. The new Iraqi Constitution represents much more; it embodies the goals and will of a free Iraqi people, the majority of whom embrace true democratic ideals. This Constitution promises freedom of thought, conscience and belief for all Iraqi citizens and is based on the recognition that the Iraqi people constitute a nation of diverse religions and sects.
Just a few years ago, the idea of religious freedom in Iraq was only a dream. Saddam’s brutal regime severely restricted or banned many of the Shi’a religious practices, conducted atrocious campaigns of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protractedly detained religious leaders and followers of the Shi’a population. The regime systematically killed senior Shi’a clerics, desecrated Shi’a mosques and holy sites, interfered with Shi’a religious education, and prevented Shi’a adherents from performing their religious rites.
The fifty-three mass graves found since the overthrow of Saddam act as a vivid testimony to the evil of the Hussein regime. Over 400,000 bodies—many belonging to the young, the old, the defenseless—have been unearthed, their arms lashed together and bullet holes in the backs of their skulls testifying to their execution. The few who escaped Saddam’s death squads testify to the oppressive and indiscriminate brutality of the Hussein regime. The new constitution, the new government, and the new vitality of the Iraqi people all portend a future more promising than the recent past.
As Americans, it is our responsibility to continue to support and promote the transformation in Iraq so it can serve as a beacon of hope and possibility for religious freedom worldwide. If I have learned anything during my work on this issue, it is that we must always hope and work to give hope to those suffering persecution. The stories of suffering and religious persecution are often too troubling to bear or even imagine, but they act as a reminder of our responsibility to those without freedom. The need in this world is great; the progress in Iraq is historic, but it is only a beginning.
As we gather as Americans this Thanksgiving, let us celebrate more than family and football; let us give thanks for the freedoms we so often take for granted. Bearing witness to the miraculous changes we have seen in Iraq, we have reason for hope in a more promising future. Let us dedicate ourselves anew to the goal of bringing freedom to those who long for it, relief to those whose suffering demands it, and resolve to the mission before us.