Celebrating a Shared History of Religious Freedom

Celebrating a Shared History of Religious Freedom
By U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael George DeSombre

As an American who has lived overseas and raised my family abroad, I have been able to see my country more clearly and appreciate the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. One of the most important of these freedoms is freedom of religion. Like the United States, Thailand has a long-standing tradition of respecting religious freedom. This year, Thailand celebrates the 142nd anniversary of the Edict of Religious Tolerance. First announced by King Chulalongkorn in 1878, the Edict says that whoever wishes to embrace any religion, after seeing that it is true and proper, can do so without any restriction, and that the responsibility rests on the individual. This powerful idea has been included in every subsequent constitution of Thailand.

In recognition of this important historical event, I will be hosting a roundtable today to provide a forum in which approximately 15 leaders from religious institutions, government ministries, civil society organizations and universities will reflect on Thailand’s long-standing respect for the right to freedom of religion and belief, and explore opportunities for and challenges to expanding inter-religious harmony in the present day.

The Edict came not long after the arrival of the first American missionaries to Thailand in the mid-1800s. These men and women of strong religious faith worked with their Thai brethren to establish medical institutions throughout the country such as McCormick Hospital – where the father of King Rama IX Prince Mahidol treated patients after returning from Harvard Medical School. They also built schools like Dara Academy – one of the first to educate girls in northern Thailand – as well as Payap University, which have trained a generation of Thai healthcare workers, lawyers, and clergy. These were men and women of different faiths, drawn together by a respect for religious freedom and the common call to improve people’s lives.

The forebearers of these men and women helped to shape the United States’ commitment to freedom of religion. In the seventeenth century, those who came to the shores of what is now the United States sought a new home where they could be free to worship as their consciences dictated. The early faith of these first immigrants – whom today we call Pilgrims – was the genesis for our belief in the freedom of religion, a belief that quickly grew to cover not only the many forms of Christianity but also Islam and Judaism as early as the mid-1600s. At the very foundation of our Republic, freedom of religion was established as a first principal, in the same breath as freedom of speech, the freedom to peacefully assemble, and the freedom to petition our government for a redress of grievances.

Waves of subsequent immigrants from around the world saw the United States welcoming many other religions, including Buddhists, who began arriving in the 1820s, with the first Buddhist temple built in San Francisco in 1853.

Americans continue to welcome people of all faith traditions, and we work to protect all faiths. As Americans, not only do we accept the faith of others, but we also oppose those who target others for their faith or who oppress religion for ideological reasons.

Today religion is under attack across the globe. Churches and mosques are torn down and people of faith are detained and forced to renounce their ethnic identities, cultural practices and religious faiths. More than eight out of ten people in the world today live in countries where not all are free to follow the faith of their own choosing. We must not yield to those who would control how we practice our religion.

Today the United States is taking the lead to protect religious freedom throughout the world. We believe that by embracing freedom of religion as a fundamental right, a country will grow stronger and flourish. By empowering people to pursue their own faith, countries like the United States and Thailand build foundations of tolerance and trust that benefit their societies. In such societies, interfaith cooperation flourishes and religious communities contribute significantly to social welfare and serve as a moral compass for their nations. Together, the United States and Thailand must continue to defend the right of people everywhere to freely practice their religion.

I am proud to champion a value held not only by Americans, but by people of faith across the globe, including here in Thailand, where you have opened your doors and hearts to those of diverse faiths.

(This Op-Ed was originally published in The Nation Thailand and ThaiPublica website. The Thai version of this Op-Ed was originally published in Isaranews Agency and ThaiPublica website on September 30, 2020.)