The Providence Journal -- Thanksgiving and Hanukkah spell re-dedication to religious freedom

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December 2, 2013 | By Robert P. George

The following op-ed appeared in the Providence Journal on November 30, 2013.

Washington - As the nation celebrates Thanksgiving, Jewish Americans are also commemorating Hanukkah, the eight-day Feast of Dedication.

Interestingly, this year these holidays overlap. Much more importantly, however, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah share a common theme: religious freedom. Thanksgiving reminds us of the Pilgrims' arduous and risky journey to the New World to practice their religion in accordance with their consciences. Hanukkah celebrates ancient Israel's Maccabees who, by defeating the foreign despot Antiochus, gained the freedom to practice their religion as they rededicated their Temple.

Yet another commemoration harkens to this freedom. On Monday, Hanukkah's fifth full day, America will mark the 250th anniversary of the dedication of its oldest temple, Touro Synagogue, in Newport.

Decades later, in 1790, George Washington addressed to its congregants his historic letter on freedom of conscience. Writing that all Americans, Jews no less than Christians, "possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Washington reaffirmed that the U.S. government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

True to Washington's words and the spirit of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, America has been a refuge throughout its history for people fleeing religious persecution.

Unfortunately, such persecution continues today across the world. Religious-freedom abuses affect an alarming range of people: Rohingya Muslims in Burma; Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, Protestant house church members, Falun Gong and others in China; Coptic Christians in Egypt and other Christians elsewhere in the Middle East; Baha'is and Jews in Iran; Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus in Pakistan; and Muslims of minority sects in Muslim-majority nations such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan and non-Muslim nations such as Russia.

Indeed, according to a Pew study, 75 percent of the world's people live in countries which perpetrate or tolerate serious violations, ranging from restrictions on worship to the commission of torture and murder.

In 1998, in response to such violations, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed into law, the International Religious Freedom Act. The law created a new international religious freedom office in the State Department, headed by an ambassador-at-large. The law also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

USCIRF was founded as an independent, bipartisan federal body to monitor freedom of religion abroad and make policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state and Congress. One of USCIRF"s key responsibilities is to recommend to the State Department nations that should be designated as "countries of particular concern,” marking them as the world's worst religious-freedom abusers, as well as actions that should be taken given this designation.

This year, USCIRF recommended that eight nations be re-designated: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. We found that seven other states deserved the same status: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

In our work, we are aided by the fact that this fundamental right is not only a foundational part of America's heritage, but is enshrined in international law and covenants, including Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaims the following:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

As USCIRF's chairman, I am committed, along with my colleagues and commission staff, to do all I can to make religious freedom a central issue in the foreign policy of our nation - one that cannot be pushed aside or ignored. It is my hope that during this holiday season, we will gain a renewed appreciation for this bedrock freedom and the importance of proclaiming it to the world.

Robert P. George is Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

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