PROVO — Brigham Young University law professor Cole Durham knew he was risking his life to go to Baghdad in 2005 to help give the Iraqi people the right to religious freedom in their new constitution.

The bulletproof vest made the point, in case the pre-trip security training and all the moving around in the dark of night didn't.

Durham recalled that trip Thursday night — the eve of National Religious Freedom Day — as he received an honor previously awarded to such international luminaries as former Czech President Vaclav Havel and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Durham went to Iraq because studies have shown that freedom of religion contributes to world peace. He also did it because he believes the tenet of his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that all people should be able to worship — or not worship — however they wish.

His contributions to laws on religious freedoms from Albania to Ukraine over the past 20 years prompted the First Freedom Center to give him the prestigious 2009 International First Freedom Award at an awards banquet in Richmond, Va.

"Cole is really in a world-class category all his own," First Freedom Center Vice President Isabelle Kinnard told BYU's Daily Universe.

Durham has actively participated in consultations about religious-freedom laws in Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine. In 2007, he spent 185 days out of the country at conferences.

Durham estimates that a relatively small group of about 10,000 people sets the religious policies for all nations. Over the past 15 years, he has hosted 800 people in those positions at annual conferences sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU's law school.

The LDS Church, which owns BYU, benefits from the spread of religious freedom, but that is not the chief purpose of Durham's work, said Robert Smith, managing director of the BYU center.

"This award validates the fact our church is not simply pursuing religious freedom as a policy of the LDS Church but that our interests really do expand to protect the rights of religious belief for all people," Smith said. "That recognition or validation is important."

In a 2001 devotional address at BYU, Durham recalled that LDS Church founder Joseph Smith said he would die to defend the rights of a member of any religion.

Durham also displayed maps that showed the state of religious freedom of all nations and how the LDS Church only operates and grows in those that guarantee freedom of worship. "We remain a tiny minority virtually everywhere — so religious-freedom protections continue to be of tremendous significance to the church and its members," Durham said.

Studies cited by Durham last fall at BYU's conference echoed what John Locke predicted 300 years ago: If nations protected the rights of religious minorities, they would be rewarded with loyal citizens grateful for the freedom to practice their beliefs.

Nearly all countries have adopted their constitutions since the end of World War II, and the process continues, often with Durham's aid. Next month, he will consult with another nation writing a new constitution, just as he did for one country last year and another the year before.

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The First Freedom Center also gave out its annual awards to a national religious freedom advocate and to a Virginian. The national award winner was Douglas Laycock, who has been involved in Supreme Court cases surrounding issues like animal sacrifice and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Virginia award went to Samuel Ericsson, president and CEO of Advocates International, a global network of legal professionals based in Fairfax, Va., guided by the parable of the Good Samaritan to promote religious freedom, human rights and the integration of faith and legal practice.

"All three award recipients have made profound contributions to furthering the principles of religious freedom in Virginia, in the United States and around the world," said Tommy Baer, chairman of the First Freedom Center's board of trustees.