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Religious liberty on rise, scholar says

Religious liberty is increasing in the post-Cold War world as religion plays a growing part in the definition of communities and the affairs of nations, a Harvard scholar said at Brigham Young University Monday.

In many countries, secular thought has failed to meet people's needs, and people are looking for moral guidance not available through government channels, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington said."In almost any place you look, religious thinking is playing a more and more central role," he said. "If religion is becoming more important to people, then it is also acquiring some political aspects."

Huntington, author of the 1996 book "The Clash of Civilizations," delivered the keynote address at an international, church-state symposium sponsored by BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and Kennedy Center for International Studies.

The conference featured dozens of clergy, scholars and government officials from around the globe speaking on the theme, "Harmonizing Religious Liberty With Cultural Traditions and Values."

The resurgence of religion during the past few decades has caused governments to devise strategies for dealing with religion as a political force. Typically, governments either use religion to their advantage, try to control it or seek to eliminate it, Huntington said.

The director of Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies discussed the role of the Catholic Church in the democratization of Latin America in the 1970s, the effect of Catholic and Protestant denominations in opening portions of Asia and the contributions made by Christian churches in pulling down the Iron Curtain around Eastern Europe.

Huntington asserted that Christianity likely will continue to be a destabilizing force in authoritarian environments.

"I think it is understandable why communist leaders in China and elsewhere view religion as a threat to their political authority," he said. "The revival of religion has led in some cases to the redefinition of the identity of a country."

He said he could not understand why Cuban leader Fidel Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit his island nation. Castro either experienced a brief moment of incoherence or he is extremely self-confident, Huntington mused.

"I can think of few greater challenges to Castro's rule in Cuba than a papal visit."

Huntington noted there is a strong correlation between liberty and Western-style religion. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of the nations considered "free" or democratic have large Christian denominations.

While religious liberty in general is on the upswing, some nations are cracking down on religious belief. Besides China, Muslim states are moving toward more restrictions on religions rather than fewer, he said.

The church-state symposium began Sunday and concludes Tuesday. Government officials from Russia, Ukraine, Peru, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic and Slovenia participated, as well as scholars from various universities.