Opinion

Religious freedom, in Murfreesboro and Mecca

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Last week, the controversial mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn., finally opened its doors, allowing adherents to celebrate Ramadan in the new facility after years of litigation. The victory was won, in part, because champions of religious liberty from across the political spectrum united in advocating for the mosque.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty -- best known for defending religious organizations' Christian principles, the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and the rights of military chaplains to profess their faith -- argued that the legal and zoning restrictions faced by the mosque should be no different than those that Christian churches undergo.

The fight in Murfreesboro, which included vandalism and at least one bomb threat, is rightly seen as crossing traditional political divides. It is a fundamental conflict between competing American values. One of those clashes is between America's commitment to religious liberty, speech and assembly, versus the concern that religion is a cover for hate speech. Some critics charge that the mosque will generate calls for violence against Christians, Jews, women and America writ large.

Many people would say that religious freedom triumphed in Murfreesboro. But this victory prompts another question: Could Christians apply for a zoning permit to build a church in Saudi Arabia? Could Jews build a synagogue there? What about in Afghanistan? Iran? Even "modern" Turkey?

In recent years, we've seen an exodus of Christians from many Muslim countries. Although it is true that tiny Christian minorities have been allowed to exist in some quarters, such as northern Iraq, one need only look at the plight of Egyptian Coptic Christians to realize that the restrictions and persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is widely distributed across much of the Muslim-majority world.

Indeed, the July 30 release of the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report, along with the release of a parallel report by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, documents the fact that Christians, Jews and other religious minorities would never have the chance in many Muslim-majority countries that Muslims have in Murfreesboro.

The State Department's "countries of particular concern" and USCIRF's additional "watch list" of problematic countries include the old authoritarians (e.g. China, Venezuela), but they are dominated by Muslim countries, including Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and others.

In short, the Murfreesboro case should remind us that religious liberty is a fundamental concern abroad, and that the U.S. must continue to champion it.

Eric Patterson is dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and senior research fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.

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