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A quiet voice in a world of trouble, Cole Durham works for religious liberty

Published: Thursday, Jan. 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 photo, a Jewish man looks towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, is ground zero in the territorial and religious conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Jerusalem also factors heavily into the conversation over international religious liberty, according to religion expert Cole Durham.

Simone Camilli, Associated Press

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In a crowded, wood-paneled mock courtroom at a recent conference on religious liberty in Provo, delegates from 40 countries listened intently through their headphones as translators scrambled to integrate 15 languages, ranging from Macedonian to Vietnamese.

At the podium, a South African judge told how he twice overruled parental religious objections, forcing them to allow their child a blood transfusion. "I think in both cases the parents were eventually happy that their children survived," he said.

A Malaysian lawyer later stood to condemn any religious influence in public life. "Human rights is the enemy of all religions," he said, his perspective bent under the weight of a heavy-handed Muslim majority at home. “Human rights stem from ancient Greece.”

Not everyone agreed. "Secularism is the enemy," insisted an Evangelical Christian from Great Britain, warning that Parliament's new gay marriage laws in the U.K. strip religious institutions of their rights to dissent.

In the corner of the room, through all the chaos of language and perspective, sat a slightly rumpled figure in a pinstripe suit, a large man with a soft, quiet face. He appeared to be bystander but was, in fact, the man who brought them all together.

This is the world of Cole Durham, the mastermind behind the chaos, a facilitator who gets people talking about tectonic friction at the intersections of religion, society and the state. The event was the 20th annual conference of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah.

The delegates came to talk. And perhaps to listen. Durham’s job, as he sees it, is to bring them together and then get out of their way. His aim, said Brett Scharffs, a BYU colleague who works closely with Durham, is to help foster an intellectual framework that can, in time, grow into legal systems that protect religious freedom for people of all faiths.

"Cole's mission is so important and so well executed," said David Little, a retired Harvard divinity professor and longtime associate of Durham's. "He aims to educate people about the complexities of religion in public life, and creates spaces in which these conversations can take place.”

Four types of conflict

There are four main arenas of religious conflict on the scene today, said Zachary Calo, a Protestant who teaches law at Valparaiso University in Indiana. And Durham's agenda reaches to all four.

In the secular West, Calo said, society and the state make ever-expanding demands that increasingly force traditional believers into a corner. Deciding when those claims are compelling and when they are oppressive is not always easy. Jehovah's Witnesses resist blood transfusions for their kids. In France, the government has banned the head scarf. In the U.S. and the U.K., traditionalists clash with advocates of gay equality.

The second type occurs when suspicious police states resist alternative sources of moral authority that could come between the citizen and the state, Calo said. In Vietnam, Catholics face persecution. In Russia, various evangelical and nontraditional sects are targeted, reflecting a pragmatic alliance between the dominant Russian Orthodox Church and the authoritarian Russian state. And in China the story is much the same: a secular regime that resents faiths that come between the state and the citizen.

Calo’s third arena of friction involves Islamic states, where religious minorities often struggle against formal oppression and informal violence.

Finally, there's friction in Africa, where Christians and Muslims grate against each other in a relative state of anarchy, with the conflict often taking on a tribal feeling rather than reflecting a single dominant religion or powerful state.

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