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Investor's Business Daily -- Religious Freedom An Asset To An Economy's Bottom Line

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August 29, 2014 | By Katrina Lantos Swett and Daniel I. Mark

The following op-ed appeared on Investor's Business Daily on August 28, 2014.

When Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag — the 27-year-old Sudanese wife and mother initially sentenced to death for apostasy — arrived this month in the U.S., it signaled the welcome end to a nightmarish story of religious freedom abuse. Others like her have been less fortunate.

Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen, is serving an eight-year sentence in Iran for involvement in the house-church movement. Beijing has imprisoned and tortured Gao Zhisheng, one of China's most respected human rights leaders, for defending fellow citizens of various faiths, from Falun Gong to Christians.

Such stories remind us that defending freedom of religion or belief — the right to believe or not believe and to act peacefully on such convictions — is a humanitarian imperative.

But there is another reason the world should defend this right: Several studies connect religious-freedom violations to serious societal harm.

In the political realm, these violations are tied to the absence of democracy and the presence of abuses of other human rights, such as freedom of expression, associations and assembly, and the rights and status of women.

In civic life, when religious liberty is violated, nations surrender the benefits that religious beliefs may confer through molding people’s character and fostering responsible citizenship. Indeed, wherever this right goes unprotected, peace and security suffer, weakening not just the nations where violations occur, but also neighboring countries and even the world.

On May 29 of this year, researchers Brian Grim of Georgetown University and Greg Clark and Robert Edward Snyder of Brigham Young University published a study that provides evidence that religious freedom has an economic impact as well.

Reviewing the GDP growth of 173 countries while controlling for 23 financial, social and regulatory factors, they found that religious freedom not only is associated with global economic growth, but also is one of only three factors carrying that association.

As the study found, 20% of countries with low levels of religious hostilities and 20% nations with low levels of government restrictions on religion were economic innovators, while the figures for nations with high levels of hostilities and restrictions were only 8% and 7%, respectively.

To be sure, correlation does not imply causation. That said, there are compelling reasons to believe that religious freedom enhances economic growth, while abuses impede it. Based on the work of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), on which we serve, here are three of the most important reasons: 

First and foremost, religious persecution marginalizes the persecuted, wasting their talents and thwarting their potential. Besides being a human tragedy, each person who is marginalized is one fewer person contributing to a nation’s output. By holding people back, religious persecution makes it harder for countries to produce and innovate their way out of poverty.

One example is Iran’s senseless discrimination against its Bahai population, creating daunting obstacles for this educated and industrious group.

Second, religious-freedom abuses put a chill on domestic business formation as well as foreign investment. This is partly due to the well-supported connection between severe religious-freedom abuses and rising social unrest, including violence.

Given a choice, entrepreneurs and investors prefer stable, secure and predictable environments in which to do business.

Furthermore, while deep corruption countries like Pakistan contributes more to economic stagnation, that country’s enforcement of blasphemy laws – which distort the marketplace by enabling businesses to prevail not through superior performance but by leveling blasphemy charges at rivals holding unpopular religious views – can only harm the economy further.

Third, in a world in which more people are demanding that companies be socially responsible, many firms would rather operate in nations that are not notorious abusers of human rights, including religious freedom.

In short, while individual cases like those of Ibrahim, Abedini and Gao rightly grab the world’s attention, perhaps we can sustain the focus on such gross abuses by stressing the societal costs that offending nations incur by refusing to respect and protect religious freedom.

For those who care about religious freedom, and for those striving to conquer poverty and expand prosperity, the argument is the same: Religious freedom is good not only for a nation’s soul, but also for its economic bottom line and the well-being of its people. For the U.S. and other countries, it is one more reason for weaving religious freedom more tightly into foreign policy.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0613.