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Small steps fostering high hopes for increased religious freedom

Some quiet but significant steps toward greater religious freedom and acceptance are happening worldwide.

They may be only baby steps. But they show some movement.They range from Russia vowing more tolerance for outside religions to the U.S. State Department making religious freedom a top priority for foreign policy to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building a first bridge with Islamic countries.

Showing that times are changing were some symbols at the Russian Embassy, where diplomats called a press conference last week to proclaim they will not infringe on rights to worship as they implement a new law regulating foreign-based churches.

Reporters climbing a grand staircase en route to that press conference found a huge Christian cross at the top.

The backdrop for diplomats who spoke was a massive tapestry of a Russian Orthodox chapel in the woods.

Those symbols, of course, would not have been seen during Soviet days when Communist leaders pushed atheism. And showing acceptance of some religion, any religion, is a step forward.

But U.S. officials, of course, were alarmed when Russia pushed the new law that could bar any church that hadn't been in the country for 15 years (which was tough during Communist rule) from doing missionary work or owning property.

Sens. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Gordon Smith, R-Ore. - who are both LDS - even persuaded the Senate to pass a resolution threatening to cut off aid to Russia if it adopted the bill.

Russia adopted it anyway. But Russian diplomats said such concern by foreign governments - and some of their own citizens - has not gone unnoticed. And they said they will not interfere with major churches that have been operating there already.

They stressed that the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion - and said that supersedes the new law. They softened requirements so that any evidence of a church existing in Russia before or during Communist rule will allow legal recognition.

Bennett said he and others will watch closely, but if Russia implements the law in the newly mild manner as it claims, the Senate will likely seek no sanctions.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced last month the Clinton administration is making religious freedom a key goal of all embassy work and foreign policy - and created a new assistant secretary position to push it worldwide.

That came at the prompting of a committee she appointed to look at religious persecution worldwide - which also issued a report last month saying virtually all religions are persecuted or greatly restricted somewhere on earth.

Elder Russell M. Nelson, an LDS apostle who is on that State Department committee, said while some nations will still disregard U.S. diplomatic and trade promptings toward greater freedom, "some will pay a lot of attention." And he said such efforts seem to make religious freedom more cherished worldwide.

Among nations that the State Department committee worried about most were Islamic countries, where it said non-Islamic churches and religions are often not allowed or tolerated.

While the State Department may seek diplomatic means to alter that, the LDS Church and its Brigham Young University took a different, low-key step this week to build friendship and understanding with Muslims.

It hosted a dinner in Washington with ambassadors and other diplomats from 19 countries with large Islamic populations to introduce to the world a new series of translations into English of Arabic works of philosophy, history and literature.

BYU associate professor Daniel C. Peterson said most people in the West are not aware of the great body of Arabic literature and its early impact on the world because it has not been translated into Western languages in recent centuries.

The BYU series could, therefore, someday help make philosopher Al-Ghazali as well-known as Plato and Aristotle. He is already better known than them in the Islamic world.

Such gestures could help the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds seem less foreign to each other and let both sides build trust - a precursor to any possible expansion of freedoms.

Times indeed are changing, even though changes may seem small. But big things usually start small.