WASHINGTON At the monthly meeting of the Congressional Working Committee on Religious Freedom on Thursday, leaders and representatives in their respective fields reported on their concerns over religious restrictions and civil rights violations at home and abroad.
The group gathered in the Capitol building gave brief reports on issues including Israeli-Palestinian tensions in the Middle East, anti-Semitism in universities, a Chicago Christian cemetery and difficulties with laws about the expansion of a nearby airport, as well as Saudi Arabia and extreme forms of Islam. In attendance through part of the meeting was also Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
First on the agenda was the Mayor of Ariel in Israel, Ron Nachman, who spoke about his identity as a Jew, tracing his heritage back to Abraham of the Bible, who bought land in what is modern day Israel. He stated that the Jewish people had a right to be in that land and refused the label of occupier. He also spoke about concern over religious Islamic schools called Madrasas, which he says endorse extremist teachings for young people. He brought up the term jihad, known as holy war, asking those attending what could be holy about it when such teachings relegate non-Muslims to a second class status.
Anthony Picarello, President & General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty touched upon a case in Sweden where an evangelical preacher spoke out in a sermon against homosexuality based on his understanding of the Bible. The preacher, Ake Green, was charged with hate speech under newly passed laws there. He had been sentenced to one month in prison. The Becket Fund, whose stated mission is to defend free religious expression, urged the court to overturn the decision, which the court later did. Recently the organization asked the nations Supreme Court to affirm the lower courts decision.
Picarello also spoke about litigation in Chicago involving two cemeteries that the city's mayor and supporters wanted to clear to make way for an airport expansion. St. Johns Church, which owned one of the cemeteries, sued to block the city from acquiring it. However, the mayor drafted and was able to pass a law through the legislature that would protect every other cemetery in the state except for the two near the airport, as well as doing away with other laws. The Becket Fund filed briefs in support of the church. The conflict has been pending in the courts since 2003. Since then, the Becket Fund helped fight off attempts to dismiss the case.
The next presenter was Kenneth Marcus, staff director for the U.S. Commission on Civil rights. He spoke about examples of anti-Semitism in universities, emphasizing that intimidation creates an environment which denies equal educational opportunity to Jewish students.
He stated that while traditional anti-Semitism focused on stereotypes of greedy, powerful and aggressive Jews, more recently, activity targeted toward Jewish students has connected with views about conflicts with Palestinians and Muslims as well as an anti-U.S. perspective.
He gave various examples, including one which took place in 2002, when pro-Israel students from San Francisco State University were surrounded by others shouting phrases such as "Hitler didn't finish the job." According to Marcus, students said that if it had not been for the presence of police, they would have feared for their safety.
Following Marcus was Dr. Gary Tobin, President for Jewish and Community Research, who spoke about the politics and propaganda which take place in universities. He stated that after four years of research, he found that anti-Semitism is not taking place in just some universities but across the country, from two-year community colleges to elite Ivy League schools.
He noted that more than 300 university presidents in 2002 signed a statement opposing intimidation and harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. He said that students have received death threats over their views.
One of various examples he gave was about "Blood Libel," allegations that Jews kill non-Jewish children for bizarre cannibalistic rituals. In one university he said a poster was placed depicting a food can with a Palestinian baby on the label.
Tobin also said that many Middle East Studies departments in universities were places of academic bias against Jews. He urged universities to use self-correcting measures to fix the problem, in order to stave of charges of outside infringement on academic freedom. If they could not, however, he urged that the public sector become involved, calling it a moral and fiduciary responsibility.
Finally, Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom spoke about religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. In recent testimony before the senate, she spoke about Saudi Arabia, focusing on comments appearing in tracts that urge Muslims to hate people of other religions.
On Nov. 8 during testimony before the Senate, Shea mentioned that tracts were gathered from more than a dozen mosques and Islamic centers across major cities in the United States. She stated that the Center for Religious Freedom had not determined whether any of the mosques were aware of or endorsed the tracts that were gathered, but noted that the books were published by the government of Saudi Arabia some from the nation's education ministry and other organizations monitored or controlled by the government.
Shea said that Muslim-American researchers gathered over 200 texts, which she said were efforts by Saudi Arabia to indoctrinate students in the Wahhabi sect of Islam. In her testimony, Shea said her report was consistent with the Assessment of the Treasury Department. She said the documents show that those Muslims who advocate tolerance of other religions are condemned as infidels. She added that Wahhabi extremism advocates a totalitarian hatred that can incite to violence, and urged the State Department to take the statements seriously.