Liberal Mormon and conservative Catholic join forces for religious freedom

Published: Monday, Nov. 5 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Swett sees religious persecution in Russia as part of a larger picture of the Russian state suppressing dissent.

“After Putin won the election,” Swett said, “you saw him revert to type. He has clearly stepped up efforts to crush and strangle dissent.”

Swett has focused for years on the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian plutocrat who has been languishing in Russian prisons since 2003. Khordorkovsky, Swett said, had a change of heart, embraced Western norms, and began bucking the Kremlin pressure.

With her added portfolio on religious freedom, Russia’s religious freedom concerns took on sharper focus for Swett. In August she joined fellow USCIRF member Robbie George, a Princeton jurisprudence professor, in coauthoring a piece in The Moscow Times calling out Russia for “religious extremism” laws aimed at minorities.

“Extremism” in the new law, Swett and George noted, means teaching the "exclusivity, superiority or inferiority of citizens" based on religious doctrine, a definition that could condemn most religions.

Swett and George noted a troubling Russian track record in persecuting Muslim readers of the 19th century Turkish theologian Said Nursi, whose writings grapple with the theological struggles of faith in modernity.

“Fifteen Nursi readers have stood trial on extremist charges related to banned materials, and five have served the maximum three-year prison terms,” they noted. And “in a chilling throwback to the Soviet era, authorities want Amir Abuyev, a Nursi reader in Kaliningrad, to undergo a psychiatric evaluation,” they added.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are also under fire. Swett and George noted that in May, “Authorities conducted at least 16 raids in the Orenburg region on Jehovah's Witness homes and places of worship, including a 15-hour raid on an elderly couple's home.”

Freedom to leave

“I crossed party lines to nominate Katrina for the chairmanship,” said George in a separate interview. “She and I agree on a lot of issues.” Republican House Speaker John Boehner appointed George, while Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid chose Swett.

The conservative Catholic and the liberal Mormon odd couple, who comprise two of the eight USCIRF commissioners, have found a shared purpose and have been using their USCIRF perch call support individual religious rights, not just the claims of religious communities.

They followed up their Moscow Times article with an October piece in Foreign Policy opposing blasphemy laws proposed for new constitutions in Muslim majority lands, including Egypt and Tunisia.

George, who also serves on the Deseret News advisory board, shares with Swett a vision of religious freedom that reaches to those who want to change religions, or even who want to abandon religion altogether — both core values of the International Declaration of Human Rights.

“We need robust protections for those whose beliefs are not religious, who want to exercise their freedom to leave their religion, perhaps to abandon their beliefs, to embrace a different set of values,” Swett said.

“Sometimes the threat to religious freedom comes from the community that claims jurisdiction over the individual,” George said, citing the problem of blasphemy and anti-conversion laws.

In short, George argues, and Swett agrees, is that a religious freedom agenda that focuses purely on protecting religious communities could slight a core of religion, which lies in the free individual conscience.

George said he has no problem with a religious community using social sanctions to maintain consensus within its ranks. But he draws a sharp line when “civil authority is harnessed by religious communities to punish someone they claim authority over but who wishes to be free from that community.”

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