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A Universal Concern

Religious freedom is indispensable to human progress. Without it, conscience withers and conflict more easily germinates.

This crucial freedom is always under assault - from resurgent nationalism in many parts of the world, from communist ideology where it still holds sway, from state-sanctioned orthodoxies, and from intolerance of every kind. Its defenders can never be too alert.

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In that spirit of alertness, we welcome the US State Department report on the status of religious freedom around the globe. Its focus on Christianity was mandated by Congress, and political motives were doubtless involved. China's critics are anxious to highlight that country's abysmal record on religious freedom. And Muslims worry that an emphasis on the persecution of Christians could easily slide toward a vilification of Islam.

The best answer to such worries, and the one given by State Department officials, is that freedom of worship is a universal concern. A denial of that liberty to any individual or group threatens the social and spiritual progress of all. This holds true for Christians in China, Bahais in Iran, minority Muslim sects in Pakistan, or Christians and animists in Sudan.

Christian communities in various parts of the world face specific threats. In the last bastions of communism - China in particular, but also Vietnam and North Korea - religion is still seen as a threat to the state's monopoly on authority. China's policy of allowing only state-registered and controlled Christian congregations deserves the criticism it draws from Washington and many other capitals.

In predominantly Muslim countries, attacks on Christian sects, often ancient ones like Egypt's Copts, have risen with the growth of radical fundamentalism among Muslims. Governments should be urged to protect the rights of all their citizens, regardless of the political clout or terrorist tactics of radicals. And Muslim rights should be protected in the predominantly Christian world.

It has always taken courage to uphold the rights of religious minorities. In that regard, we applaud Boris Yeltsin's decision to veto a bill that would have pushed Russia back toward state-sanctioned religion by severely restricting the ability to organize new churches. Yeltsin acted in the face of nationalist fervor to reestablish Russian Orthodoxy's former dominance.

Religious freedom may face frontal attacks in countries still under state tyranny, or just emerging from it. But more subtle assaults are under way in even the freest lands. Efforts in the United States to reaffirm the highest standard of constitutional protection for the practice of religion, threatened by recent Supreme Court rulings, are one cogent example.

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