The Eternal Flame: The Universality of Freedom of Religion or Belief

4 minutes read time
Apadana Hall, 5th century BC Achaemenid-era carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costumes.

The Eternal Flame: The Universality of Freedom of Religion or Belief

Promoting and defending religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the United States. Although freedom of religion or belief is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) some critics assert that it and the broader concept of human rights is a product of the West, a Judeo-Christian construct, and not truly universal at all. This is not the case. While the inclusion of freedom of religion in universal human rights instruments speaks to its present-day and global relevance, scholars also tell us that freedom of religion or belief has ancient roots in multiple cultures.

Thousands of years ago, the religious teachings of Zarathushtra (known as the prophet Zoroaster in the West) made freedom of choice – including the freedom to choose one’s own religion and beliefs – its central tenant. These teachings are said to have undergirded at least two Iranian empires and to have had a significant and lasting influence on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic doctrine. Inspired by these ideas, Cyrus the Great (Koresh or Kourosh) of ancient Iran freed slaves in the nations he conquered and, in the case of Jews who had been kept in captivity in Babylon, provided funds to rebuild their temple, perhaps among the first recorded acts of “cultural heritage restoration.”

An eternal flame at the Zoroastrian Temple in Yazd, Iran.

Over 2,500 years before the UDHR, Cyrus respected the spiritual traditions of Babylonians and Egyptians, and enabled religious and cultural freedom to flourish in the empire, which at its height spanned from Eastern Europe to Central Asia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley. Declarations inscribed on what is referred to as the Cyrus Cylinder, a copy of which is housed on the second floor of the United Nation’s headquarters, are a testimony to this. The actions of early Achaemenian kings such as Cyrus were typical of the values taught by Zarathushtra, including respect for their subjects' freedom to choose their own beliefs, and also the concept of good rule – that rule, authority, power are a public trust, to be exercised for the care and benefit of the ruled.

History reflects other examples of non-Western cultures that have emphasized the freedom of religion or belief. Experts recount that a few hundred years after the Achaemenids, the Buddhist Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan Empire who ruled over an area stretching from the Hind Kush in Afghanistan across Bangladesh, inscribed in pillars throughout his empire edicts declaring the inviolability of what we might generally term today “human rights.” He believed that religions share a positive essential core and encouraged tolerance and understanding among them. In the Americas, one can also find a number of pre-contact indigenous peoples like the Anishinaabe who had similarly congruent values.

The sanctity of human dignity and freedom is an ancient and venerable value that has ebbed and flowed through various cultures over time, with one people or another holding up the torch, and when overrun by the forces of tyranny, passing the torch off to another. This eternal flame has never been extinguished. While many in the West have taken up the torch, values such as freedom, equality, and human dignity are by no means uniquely Western. They are a birthright of every human being and a part of the cultural legacy of so many around the world.

The universality of these principles will be demonstrated at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which Secretary Pompeo will host at the State Department on July 25-26. With participants representing governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and religious communities from every region of the world, the Ministerial will reaffirm international commitment to this fundamental freedom and identify concrete ways to overcome contemporary challenges. 

About the Author: Dr. Sousan Abadian serves in the Office of International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.