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Mormon Professor Visits Kazakhstan’s Krishnas
By Peggy Stack   |  Mar 28, 2009

Staring at a row of demolished Hare Krishna homes in Kazakhstan, a world away from his office on the Brigham Young University campus, W. Cole Durham Jr. felt a surge of empathy.

“One reason I care about this is because my people were driven out of their homes,” Durham, a Mormon, told the demoralized homeowners.

That wasn’t just a pat line for Durham, an internationally respected expert in religious freedom. It was a simple but heartfelt explanation of what drives the Harvard-trained lawyer to help countries create legal protections for all faiths.

The task changes from country to country but one thing remains constant: It’s not easy, but it is crucial.

“One of the challenges is to get people to understand that the way to protect the majority faith is to respect everyone else,” Durham says.

During the last three decades, the soft-spoken scholar has defended the importance of religious freedom in countries across the globe, including Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Peru, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Thailand, and Ukraine.

He wrestles with topics ranging from the question of majority rule, whether to allow Western missionaries and the question of conversion, laws prohibiting blasphemy and supporting censorship, how to treat so-called “new religions,” ways to integrate the Islamic sharia laws into a secular government, to what constitutes a religion.

“If we don’t achieve respect for religion, the alternative is escalating hostilities and dangers beyond anything we’ve thought of,” Durham says. “On the positive side, there’s a strong correlation between religious freedom and [Gross National Product], literacy and women’s rights.”

In February, Durham attended the inaugural session of Nepal’s Constitution Conference, where representatives were figuring out how to move the country from a Hindu kingdom to a secular state.

Consultants from Australia, Spain, German and the Americas arrived to offer their perspectives, but Durham argued that those within the country had to be the final arbiters of what will work.

“Foreigners can help build the base camp and be sherpas,” Durham told the assembly, drawing on a Mt. Everest analogy. “But the climb has to be done by Nepalese.”

Such sensitivity to language, tradition, faiths, practices and the law is what makes Durham so successful,

“Today millions of people live better, freer, happier lives because of Cole’s work to spread religious freedom,” said James Standish, president of the First Freedom Center, at a Jan. 15 dinner in Richmond, Va., where Durham was given the 2009 International First Freedom Award. “And, at the end of the day, making individuals’ lives better is the measure of all we do.”

On March 5, Durham was again honored, this time by lawyers and leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After all, one of the church’s “Articles of Faith,” written at a time of intense hostility towards the newly formed church, declares: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Durham became intrigued with the questions of religious freedom while at Harvard Law School when writing a paper on comparative church/state issues in Germany, where he served a two-year LDS mission.

As a professor at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, Durham taught a class in American church/state questions and another one on comparative international religious laws. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, he found himself consulting with some of the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Before long, he was asked to join several international boards that monitor religious freedom issues and make recommendations.

Through the years, Durham has seen many of the same debates played out in vastly different countries.

One of the chief concerns of a majority faith, for example, is a perceived loss of power if it allows smaller faiths complete freedom.

“A lot of places have a prevailing religion, but all religious groups also have a diaspora somewhere else,” he says. “If they protect the rights of the minorities in their country, their people’s rights to practice their faith in other countries are more likely to be protected.”

That is what brought him to Kazakhstan, a former Communist country composed mainly of Muslim, Catholics and Orthodox believers. The Kazakhstan constitution allows broad religious freedom, but amendments severely limit the activities of such non-traditional faiths as Hare Krishnas.

A few years ago, the Krishnas bought property and began building a small community of believers, which raised the ire of local residents. The courts supported the Krishnas, but officials bulldozed their homes anyway. Since then, Durham and other international observers have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to defend the Krishnas.

“We are not there to impose our American values,” he says. “We just want to protect the powerless.”

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