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Karen HughesAt Conference on Faith and Service

Remarks at the International Conference on Faith and Service

Karen Hughes, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Omni Shoreham Hotel
Washington, DC
March 22, 2006

UNDER SECRETARY HUGHES: Thank you all very much. Thank you all so much. It's great to be here with you. And, John, thank you for that very kind introduction. John and I had the privilege of serving together at the White House and he was the driving force behind the USA Freedom Corps. And we were just talking about the fact that I think that's going to be one of the President's great legacies is a legacy of inspiring people to service, to serve our country through the USA Freedom Corps.

I'm delighted to join you here for this first International Conference on Faith and Service. And as those of you in this room know so well, the two concepts absolutely go hand in hand. As I travel the world, it's often my privilege to meet people whose faith has inspired them to acts of great service and it happens everywhere I go. In many cases, it's for people across the world, people who are total strangers, people who will never be able to return the favor, from Muslim doctors who traveled from America to help the victims of Pakistan's earthquake to Catholic nuns that I met caring for those left homeless by mudslides in Central America.

The concept of faith and service is at the heart of one of my all-time favorite stories about a political power play. And this one came not in the New York Times or Newsweek. This one was chronicled in the New Testament and it's when the mother of two of Jesus' twelve disciples essentially pulls an end run. She goes behind the back of all the other disciples and goes to Jesus with just a tiny little favor request, that her two sons might sit in the seats of honor at Jesus' left and right when he comes into this kingdom he keeps talking about.

Now, I love that story because first of all, it's a mom. And the mom -- you know, she obviously thinks it's important because she bothers to ask, but she's not asking for herself. How typical of a mom; she's asking for her boys. She wants the best seats in the house for her boys for eternity. Only a little bitty favor.

But it's really not the question, of course, but the answer that's the important part of that story. And Jesus does not answer with either a yes or a no. He tells her: No, no, no, you've got it all wrong, that that's not the way to look at things, that whoever wishes to be great among you, he says, must be your servant, just as he himself came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

I found in that story a lesson for how to approach my jobs in government, first in the White House, now at the State Department, to remind myself every day when you hear the fancy titles and the nice offices and you get the nice seats at the nice dinners, to remind myself every day -- and a lot of times, sometimes several times a day -- that despite all that, I'm here first and foremost to serve, to serve the President, to serve the American people, to serve my country and always, of course, to try to serve in keeping with my faith.

I have to say at the outset that some might question why a government official, especially one from a nation that prides itself on the separation of church and state, would be asked to speak at a conference on interfaith dialogue. I faced some similar questions last fall on my first trip to the Middle East when I met in Istanbul, that great crossroads of history and civilization, with representatives of the rich religious diversity of that city, including Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders. The reporters traveling with me asked why. Why would a government -- a United States Government official convene a meeting of religious leaders? And the answer is both simple and profound. It's because faith plays such a critical role in the lives of so many people across our world. Governments would be foolish to ignore its power and impact or to leave the floor only to those who seek to use religion as a force to divide or destroy.

When I started my current job as Under Secretary of State, President Bush asked me to foster and encourage the very thing that you're engaged in here today: interfaith dialogue and understanding. And I can think of few more important topics in today's world when we are confronting a violent extremist ideology that seeks to impose political tyranny through acts of terror. As His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan recently said, "In our generation, the greatest challenge comes from violent extremists who seek to divide and conquer." "Extremism is a political movement under religious cover," he went on to say. Its adherents want nothing more than to pit us against each other, denying all that we have in common.

Throughout history, as you well know, religion has sometimes been used -- and I would argue misused -- as a source of division, even as an instrument of oppression or attempted justification for terrible crimes. We've seen those forces at work in recent times as well, from the ethnic cleansing and war crimes in Bosnia to the acts of terror against our homeland on September 11th to suicide bombings in the Middle East and sectarian violence in Iraq. The perpetrators of these crimes have all sought at one time or another to justify or rationalize them because their victims belong to a different religion or a different sect or a different ethnic group. But as President Bush has said so eloquently, "Difference is never a license to kill." And civilized people of all faiths must come together to say that no injustice, no wrong, no grievance, no matter how legitimate, can ever justify the murder of innocents.

Voices from our diverse faith communities, such as those represented here today, are often the most credible voices to say that terror and violence are not a matter of religion at all. When you think about it in its starkest terms, urging young people to strap bombs on their bodies, to kill themselves, and in the process try to kill as many other innocents as possible, is not a legitimate tenet of any faith.

Islam, Christianity, Judaism, indeed all the world's great religions, view life as precious and the taking of innocent life as wrong. Terrorists have bombed weddings and funerals and Iraqi children who were lining up to try to get candy. They've destroyed mosques, killed innocent Muslims and Christians and Jews -- people of all faiths and dozens of different nations from Jordan to American, Indonesia to Spain.

Extremist violence is not evidence of any clash of civilizations. That is the language of the extremists themselves, and people of good will and all faiths must emphatically reject it. Extremist violence is instead an attack on civilized people everywhere. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, "Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts."

I believe faith can be a powerful force for good. And I know you believe that, too. That's why you're here today, to come together as people of different faiths to motivate our young people, to go out and perform acts of good. And that's the way we're going to overcome evil in this world is through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of good, performed one at a time.

Faith is a call to our conscience, a call to what President Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." And that's why I'm here today. The people in this room, as religious leaders, as leaders of grassroots organizations, of those who care passionately about these issues, can play such an important role in promoting the interfaith dialogue we need so desperately and undermining those who would seek to divide us, whether based on religion or ethnicity or race. You can make it clear that no political grievance or goal should ever justify the taking of innocent human life.

I want to challenge those of you who are here today, especially the young people, to begin an interfaith grassroots campaign. You all represent millions of people, both here and in countries around the world. I want to challenge you to do to terrorism what was done to slavery in the 19th century, when slavery went from being a widely accepted practice to an international pariah.

I recently asked our State Department experts to do some research for me on the history of the antislavery movement to see what parallels and lessons we might be able to draw from that experience. The antislavery movement was borne in dissident protestant groups in England and it spread here to America. It drew its strength from religious convictions about the equality and worth of every person and each person's right to live in freedom.

In 1833, one of every seven adults in Britain signed a petition against slavery. That's twice the number of people who were entitled to vote at that time. It was the largest public petitioning of parliament to that date -- the first example that we witnessed in modern history of what we might today call a grassroots citizens campaign.

Now, I imagine some of the young people in this room, if you're anything like my son, you know how to get on the internet or text-message your friends and you could start a 21st century version of that antislavery campaign and make it an anti-terror campaign, perhaps an electronic petition drive. But I know that if you put your imagination and your efforts toward it, that you could launch, from this room, a grassroots effort to delegitimize and say that terrorism is never justifiable in today's world, no matter, again, how legitimate the grievance you think you're trying to address.

Faith convictions, as you well know, can be powerful forces for good. In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu attacked the doctrine of apartheid as evil and unchristian. And how eloquent was he on that video where he talked about, "With God, there are no outsiders, only insiders." What a beautiful, beautiful concept of inclusion. The Catholic Church called for sanctions against the apartheid regime, while African-American religious leaders provided a theological critique.

The world's other great religions have also been forces for progress, for peace and for reconciliation. When Christian countries in Europe experienced some dark chapters in their history, it was an Islamic leader who exhibited and inspired tolerance and enlightenment. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain issued a decree forcing all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave that country, giving several hundred thousand Jews only three months to dispose of their property and leave a country where they had lived for centuries. The Ottoman ruler at the time,Sultan Beyazit II, extended an invitation to the Jews to live in the Ottoman Empire and practice their faith freely. He sent the Ottoman navy to bring thousands of them safely to their new homes, ordering his provincial governors not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them instead cordially.

Gandhi drew on the traditions of Hinduism for his inspiration in leading the nonviolent struggle for independence in India. He inspired people throughout the world, including in the United States, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others campaigned for civil rights for African-Americans.

I recently attended a conference in Doha and had the privilege of meeting another prominent cleric in this great tradition. Dr. Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, is a force for reconciliation who has called on his fellow Muslims to condemn intolerance and promote forgiveness for the crimes of the past.

We can draw inspiration from all these examples and from the examples of countless others who have used their beliefs not to justify hate or division, but to promote understanding, respect and peace. That is why I applaud the work that you're doing here to build bridges through interfaith dialogue. All of us must work together to foster common interests and common values between diverse people here in America and across our world.

I believe people the world over, moms and dads the world over, share the same fundamental desires. We all value education and we want its benefits for our children. We value science and technology and want to explore new frontiers together. We want to protect our families and live safely in our homes and neighborhoods. We want to be free to worship as we choose, to speak freely and to participate in choosing our government. We all aspire, at the core, to live decent and honorable lives, lives that we hope can make a difference for good. All of us must work to foster greater interfaith understanding and dialogue, not to minimize genuine differences but to discuss them openly and honestly in a spirit of respect.

People's faith convictions are deeply held and precious. I know that because mine are to me. I worry that America's freedom of religion is sometimes taken to mean freedom from religion and mistaken to be that. Americans believe in the separation of church and state, which means our government does not dictate how Americans can worship. People are free to worship as we wish, yet many Americans are deeply committed -- as people in this room know, we're deeply committed to our faith and all people of faith have a great deal in common.

As a Christian, my Savior says my highest commandments are to love God and love my neighbors and I know my Muslim and Jewish friends share that belief. Americans respect people of different faiths and, of course, as a government official, I represent people of all faiths as well as those who have no faith at all. In a country as diverse as ours, we must honor the beliefs held sacred by each other and the best way to do that is what you all are doing here today, through talking and sharing and discussing and dialoguing with each other.

As we promote interfaith understanding, we must also promote the bedrock on which it rests: freedom of religion. As Under Secretary of State, one of my strategic imperatives is to help America offer a positive vision of hope and opportunity to people throughout the world, a vision rooted in our enduring commitment to human freedom. We promote the fundamental rights of free speech and assembly, free press, rule of law, limits on the power of the state, rights for women and minorities, and one of the most important freedoms of all: the freedom to worship as one chooses. It's not because these are America's values, but because these are universal human rights given to every man and woman by our Creator. It's sometimes called "the first freedom." The right to worship is a fundamental human right, enshrined in international increments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which America strongly supports.

We encourage other countries and people across the world to join with us to promote this right. In Afghanistan today, a man is being prosecuted for his religious beliefs. This case clearly violates the universal freedoms held dear by democratic peoples throughout the world. And we believe it violates the Afghan constitution which guarantees the right of an individual to freedom of religion. We are deeply concerned and have expressed those concerns to the Afghan Government. Freedom to worship according to one's own conscience and conviction is a fundamental human right that must be upheld by all of us all the time. (Applause.)

Promoting religious freedom is a central element of the President's agenda for democracy and freedom across our world. The Administration has taken on ambitious new challenges to help others gain the liberty to freely hold and practice their beliefs. And we've had historic success in promoting freedom and religious freedom across the world. We must not rest in this effort, nor ever forget those who are persecuted for their beliefs and denied the rights of conscience that we sometimes take for granted here in the United States.

I want to enlist your help today to help ensure the voices of respect and understanding and civility speak out forcefully against terror, against the perversion of religion and against the denial of fundamental freedom. Who better to do this than those of you in this room today? You know that you can make a difference because you've already done so in so many communities and countries across the world. The spirit that brought you together today is the same spirit that can bridge the differences that threaten peace and freedom in our world.

I've told friends that I view my job as waging peace, and I say "waging" because I want it to be very intentional. It's something we all have to wake up and commit ourselves to doing every day. And I want to encourage each of you to view your roles in the same light. As a government official, my job is to help or to find ways to amplify your voices and ensure that the message of respect, even celebration of our differences, is heard loud and clear across the world.

I'm especially glad that so many young people are here today because you are truly our future. You are the ones who can make the difference in your work throughout our world. One of the most powerful things you have to offer is the power of your example. And I hope you'll think about that as you go back to your home communities and around the world to participate in service projects.

Ours is a rich and diverse society in which people from different faiths and cultures and backgrounds and countries all over the world live and work and worship freely together. We maintain our own faiths and our own identities yet thrive in an atmosphere of respect and appreciation for each other.

And as you go out, as the young people here today go out to serve others across our world, by your very example, by the respect that you show for each other, for your friends of different faiths, you will be setting a wonderful example for the entire world. We live in a country that's known as a land of opportunity, where people have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our dreams. One of the things that has always defined our country is our willingness to make a difference in the lives of others.

And I want to thank all of you for everything you are doing to do that here today. I know that together with our combined efforts, we truly can make a difference and change the world -- one life, one heart, one conscience at a time.

Thank you so much and may God bless you for your important work and what you're doing. Thank you all very much.

(Applause.)

2006/299

ENDS


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