Welcome to USCIRF

Deseret News -- Human rights declarations by Cyrus


December 11, 2014 | By Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett and Daniel I. Mark

The following op-ed appeared in Deseret News on December 11, 2014.

Today, Dec. 10, as we commemorate Human Rights Day and the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), we recall how last year at this time, what many consider the world’s oldest human rights declaration — inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder — concluded its U.S. tour in Los Angeles. More than 300,000 people viewed it before its return to the British Museum.

Excavated from the ruins of ancient Babylon in 1879 in what is now Iraq, the Cyrus Cylinder includes words from Cyrus of Persia (now Iran), the most powerful ruler of his time, after capturing Babylon more than 25 centuries ago. Setting a lofty standard for that time, Cyrus’ words are a haunting rebuke for our own era — for the Islamic State group in Iraq, the theocracy of Iran and today’s world as a whole: More than three quarters of the world’s people live in countries which perpetrate or tolerate serious religious freedom abuses.

Cyrus’ words heralded an exemplary policy of religious tolerance, producing stability across his vast multicultural domain — and suggesting that more freedom, rather than less, can be a recipe for a safer and more secure world.

Here is part of the British Museum’s translation of the Cyrus Cylinder:

“I am Cyrus, … king of Babylon … Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world ….

“I went as [a] harbinger of peace into Babylon. … My … troops marched peaceably. … I sought the welfare of … Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for [its] population … I freed them from their bonds ….

“I collected together … their people and returned them to their [homelands].”

One of the proclamation’s many paraphrases includes this excerpt:

“I ordered that all shall be free to worship their gods without harm … I ordered closed places of worship … to be reopened. … I brought their people together and rebuilt their homes.”

At least two notable things distinguish Cyrus’ utterances from those of his contemporaries. First, his words contain plenty of carrots and no discernible sticks. Cyrus makes no fear-inducing references to horrors inflicted on foes. He implicitly rejects Islamic State-like atrocities. This forbearance was nearly unheard of among preceding conquerors.

Second, the Cyrus Cylinder appears to affirm human rights and champion religious tolerance.

Of course, words are one thing; actions are another. Did Cyrus’ deeds match his words?

The evidence suggests they did. Cyrus’ description of his treatment of the Babylonians neatly parallels the Bible’s depiction of how he treated the Jews, whom the Babylonians had conquered and deported. As the Bible relates, upon capturing Babylon, Cyrus released the Jews from captivity and repatriated those desiring to return to their homeland, as he did with other peoples.

Thus, if both the Cylinder and the Bible are accurate about Cyrus, he managed to treat both the Babylonians and the Jews with equal respect for their religious rights.

There is one final bit of evidence that validates Cyrus’ words: Other writers of antiquity, including Herodotus and Xenophon, bestowed similar accolades on his governance. According to Xenophon: “[T]hose who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while [they] … respected Cyrus as their ‘Father.’ … What other man … after having overturned an empire, ever died with the title of ‘The Father’ from the people whom he had brought under his power?”

This praise is noteworthy because both men were Greeks, who had no love lost for their Persian adversaries.

Today, researchers are confirming what Cyrus recognized more than 25 centuries ago: Tolerant governments can produce stable societies by winning people’s confidence and trust. The Islamic State group and other tyrants reject this approach, as do dozens of nations, from Burma to China, Eritrea to Pakistan and Russia to Uzbekistan, as documented by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve. The outcome is insecurity and strife.

While much of the world remains darkened by tyranny, Cyrus’ vision lives on through Human Rights Day, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the hopes and aspirations of billions.