Afghanistan Needs Religious Freedom

The following remarks were delivered after the House’s passage of a resolution (H. Res. 736) condemning Afghanistan for taking legal action against any citizen who has converted to another religion. Rep. Pence sponsored the resolution.

I had the tremendous pleasure of traveling to Afghanistan in December 2004. Prior to departure, was eager to see this newly minted democracy, meet the Afghan people and see the good work being done by the people of Afghanistan in partnership and solidarity with American troops.

I had the honor of visiting with newly inaugurated President Hamid Karzai. This affable and humorous man, who I came to view as Afghanistan’s indispensable man, greeted our delegation. President Karzai left me with the indelible sense that Afghanistan will succeed largely because this gracious, intelligent and humble man is leading it.

While I am relieved that through President Karzai’s personal leadership on behalf of religious freedom Abdul Rahman has been freed, religious freedom in Afghanistan is still behind bars.

The American people today have the luxury of looking upon the recent events in Afghanistan through the eyes of a people far removed from the volatile days of the beginning of their own republic. Far removed from the events unfolding over three years following ratification of the U.S. Constitution that established the protections granted under the Bill of Rights.

Unlike the American people today, President Karzai and the people of Afghanistan find themselves just beginning the long and arduous journey of democracy. A democracy within which, I fear, the value of religious freedom is suspect and protections of religious freedom are vague.

When the loya jirga in Afghanistan approved the Constitution, they were explicit in stating human rights protections.

As stated in H. Res. 736, the Constitution of Afghanistan affirms that the people of Afghanistan are ‘for creation of a civil society free of oppression, atrocity, discrimination, and violence, and based on the rule of law, social justice, protection of human rights and dignity, and ensuring the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people.’

Article 7 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan provides that the state shall observe the United Nations Charter, inter-state agreements, as well as international treaties to which Afghanistan has joined, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and the freedom to change one’s religion or belief.

Like House Resolution 736 says, I call upon the Government of Afghanistan, and especially President Karzai, to continue to work to conform Afghan laws to Afghanistan’s international human rights treaty obligations, thereby protecting Afghan citizens who have converted or plan to convert to other religions from prosecution.

I implore the people of Afghanistan to continue to work through difficult issues such as this one. Vigorous debate is important within a democracy, but recognition of fundamental inalienable rights is also important.

Like many Americans fearful of the dangerous chain of events a case like the one against Abdul Rahman could unfurl, I see religious freedom as a clear, inalienable right — a right that is a key to the survival of democracy.

Thomas Paine said it well, ‘That which we obtain too easily, we esteem to lightly.’

I do not believe that the people of Afghanistan attained democracy too easily or take it too lightly. I believe the Afghan people fought long and hard at great personal cost. This is why I believe strongly that they should fight even more fervently to protect the rights and freedoms that so many Afghan men, women and children died before experiencing.

Those who die in the cause of freedom did not die in vain, for they light the flame of freedom and instill its care to the generations who follow. This generation of Afghan people have the solemn duty of fanning that flame by protecting the fundamental rights of their countrymen, like the freedom to believe and practice a religion of one’s own choosing.

It is my hope that this resolution would not send a message of condemnation, but a clear message that despite the grave concerns the American people have raised seeking protections for religious minorities, the American people are still committed to working in partnership and solidarity with President Karzai and the people of Afghanistan in defense of their hard-earned freedom.