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Religious Freedom Promotes Peace

Religious Freedom Promotes Peace

3 September 2010

APIA, Samoa—There is a government-led process currently underway in Samoa to review the operation of the Village Fono Act. This process inevitably raises the issue of how one is able to reconcile individual freedom of conscience and religion, safeguarded by the Constitution, with the interests of the many village Fono (councils of chiefs) in regulating village affairs and safeguarding public peace and order. This is a perplexing issue for many Samoans, and many non-Samoans who also love this wonderful nation.

On the one hand, matters of faith and religious observance are deeply personal and sacred. If a person wants to worship in the Assembly of God Church, or any other church, the Constitution is his or her ally. The United Nations and major faiths have declared the sanctity of individual religious liberty, and Samoa since independence has joined the nations of the world in committing to the importance of that fundamental freedom.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of Samoans are members of villages, and they look to their village Fono for leadership and protection, so they can live peacefully and happily in their homes and communities.

Sadly, right here in Samoa, there have been occasions when the rights of the individual and communal interests of the village have clashed. This has led to individuals and families being fined by the Fono for converting to another religion or banned from worshipping in their church of choice. Some have been banished from their village, their homes burnt to the ground. Today there are at least 29 villages where individuals are not permitted to practice their religion according to the dictates of their consciences.

Clearly the issues currently being considered by the Law Reform Commission and others are very important and correct solutions need to be identified so individual rights can be protected and village affairs regulated for the benefit of all.

Religious freedom is a universal aspiration. Granted by God, not government, this basic human right protects individual conscience and empowers churches to worship and speak freely. Over the centuries religious freedom has been hard fought and is now recognised by laws and constitutions around the world. The ability to believe and pursue one’s highest ideals is at the heart of what it means to be human. It’s our first freedom. Religious freedom is a right belonging to everyone. We become secure in that right only by securing it for others.

The universal support of religious freedom is interdenominational and unites all peoples of faith in a commitment to protect and publicly defend the essence of this freedom. In January 2011 Pope Benedict XVI declared to the Vatican Diplomatic Corps: “The religious dimension is an undeniable and irrepressible feature of man's being and acting, the measure of the fulfilment of his destiny and of the building up of the community to which he belongs… I identified religious freedom as the fundamental path to peace. Peace is built and preserved only when human beings can freely seek and serve God in their hearts, in their lives and in their relationships with others.”

Francis George, a Catholic Cardinal in America, said in a major university speech that “the question of freedom lies at the heart of modern society’s deepest conflicts, because it always lies at the heart of who we are as creatures made in the image and likeness of a God who loves us freely… [Religious freedom is] the capacity to fulfil one’s deepest aspirations by choosing the true and the good in the human community.”

Contrary to what is often feared, religious freedom does not create social instability but actually leads to increased public order. Societies are more likely to flourish when its citizens have the freedom to voice their deepest beliefs and highest ideals. During the past few years, a number of studies show the benefits of religious freedom to civil society all over the world. One such study is a book titled The Price of Freedom Denied published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. It shows how ensuring religious freedom for all promotes social stability and reduces violent religious persecution and conflict. Because freedom of religion is part of “a much larger bundle of civil liberties,” the “denial of religious freedoms is inevitably intertwined with the denial of other freedoms.” The international study found a correlation between religious freedom and “fewer incidents of armed conflict, better health outcomes, higher levels of earned income, prolonged democracy, and better educational opportunities for women.” Their study also found a positive correlation between freedom of religion and a variety of other social benefits such as gender empowerment, lower poverty, overall “liveability” or quality of life, lower inflation, lower income inequality, and higher earned income for both women and men.

Latter-day Saints add their strong support to people of faith around the world, in advocating for religious freedom for all. One of their articles of faith states: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been in Samoa since 1863. Of the 180,000 Samoans living in Samoa, at least 50,000 of them are Latter-day Saints. With one in four Samoans being Mormon, and due to the Church's long and rich history in Samoa, Latter-day Saints are part of the fabric of this beautiful land. The Church has a temple and over 100 chapels, with 134 congregations. Over the last 20 years its humanitarian and welfare programs have brought aid valued at almost 10 million Tala (4.4 million USD) into the country. Frequent 'Mormon Helping Hands' community service projects see hundreds of Latter-day Saints painting schools, cleaning public land, and serving Samoa in other ways. In response to the 2009 earthquake and tsunami, the Church and its members provided communities with food, water, temporary shelter and medical supplies. For months after the disaster Latter-day Saints worked side by side with others to rebuild homes and villages. These efforts have strengthened individuals and families of all faiths, and their communities.

On the issue of religious freedom and public peace and order in Samoa, the Latter-day Saints' position is clear. They are a law-abiding people. They seek to sustain the law of the land, as well as central and local government leaders. They are for religious liberty for themselves, and for their friends and neighbours of all faiths, as well as those who choose not to believe.

Latter-day Saints have made it clear that they want to work with others to enhance the village Fono’s role under the Samoan Constitution. They want to sustain their leadership in the villages by working with them and others so the guidelines for handling religious freedom matters under the Constitution can be clear and fair for the benefit of all communities, all families, and all individuals.

Over the coming weeks individuals and groups have the chance to make their feelings known on this important subject in a number of public meetings around the country. Samoans who are for religious freedom, for the Constitution, for supporting government, village and church leaders, and all who are praying for personal and public peace should speak up.

Samoa has been a leader in the region and amongst small developing countries in many areas. It has been a model of social and political stability for the last 30 years. Its leaders and citizens' commitment to democracy and faith are foundational to its many successes. This opportunity to revisit those past commitments allows Samoa to restate its dedication to the freedoms in the Constitutional document and in particular the freedom of religion in all its manifestations.

It is inevitable that in a society with many different religions and interests, freedoms will occasionally conflict with one another. However, as we walk in faith and according to the tenets of our religious beliefs, with goodwill and cooperation, we can resolve these challenges for the lasting benefit of all.


© Scoop Media

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