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What We Need to Know about Religious Freedom: An Overview

The Size of the Issue

                         Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
                         This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights

When the right-wing caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, with a fundamentalist certitude about its own agenda, names itself the Freedom Caucus, you know we’re confused. Among words that have been abused and misused, falsely claimed, perverted, and subverted, few have suffered more than the word freedom. Add “religious” and you have a perfect platform for semantic difficulties. For instance some conservative American Christians are conflating religious freedom with the right to discriminate in the marketplace. Matt Mardis-McCloy dismantles that claim this month, as TIO embarks on an extended exploration of religious freedom. (Timothy Snyder’s essay on religious freedom and theological highjacking last June in TIO is equally to the point.)

Religious freedom matters so much because so very, very many people are suffering religious oppression and conflict, and it is getting worse, particularly since the self-designated Islamic State took fundamentalism to its violent extreme, continually killing whoever disagrees with them.

Fourteen months ago TIO reviewed the numbers and analysis in the 2014 Pew Research Center publication “Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High.”

Here are a few of the details:

  • Outbreaks of religiously related terrorist violence have doubled, going from one country in ten to one in five.
  • Women are harassed for their dress in 32 percent of all countries.
  • Half of all African countries suffered sectarian violence in 2012, which news stories suggest continues to escalate.
  • China is increasingly repressive of its Uighar Muslims and its growing Christian population, and Hindu-Muslim as well as Buddhist-Muslim relations remain on tenterhooks in South and Southeast Asia.  

The report concludes that “Roughly three-quarters of the global population lives where overall levels of religious restriction or hostilities were high or very high in 2012,” a statistic consigning billions of faith practitioners from all traditions to conflict and oppression over what they believe. Piling oppression on oppression, governments are using the guise of confronting terrorism or violent extremism to justify repression of religious groups’ nonviolent religious activities, or imposition of broad restrictions on religious life.

Equally distressing, countries with “very high social hostilities involving religion” that year included Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestinian territories, Russia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, and Yemen.

The United States, claiming the motto “land of the free,” comes somewhere in the middle in terms of restrictions, compared to other countries. Peter Henne of the Pew Center writes that “the U.S. has more extensive restrictions and social hostilities than its northern neighbor, Canada, as well as many other countries in the Americas, according to the 2013 data. But it has a lower level of government restrictions than Mexico as well as some countries in Western Europe, including Italy and Germany. At the same time, government restrictions on religion in the U.S. are nowhere near as extensive as those of countries such as China, Iran and Burma. Likewise, the U.S. has much lower levels of social hostilities to religion than countries like India, Pakistan and Nigeria.”

Statistics and Stories

The Pew Center’s research of international religious freedom is a huge gift to social justice advocates everywhere, the numbers and analysis allowing us to look the challenge straight on, without excuses. But the issue becomes most compelling when we reach beyond the numbers to hear the stories of those who have no religious freedom. A few of these tales each year catch the imagination of major media, but thousands of stories never find a voice.

Brian Pellot – Photo: Religion News Service

For the past two years Brian Pellot has been aggregating stories about religious freedom and human rights as director of global strategy at Religion News Foundation and an editor and columnist for Religion News Service. With one sentence or two per story, along with a link, each of his reports is a library of stories which will astonish and educate readers. His April 1 report this year had stories from 12 states in the U.S; Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, and Spain; Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syria, Tanzania, and Turkey; Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Thailand; Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. You begin to grasp the size of the issue and its very human face.

Ten days ago Pellot, in a goodbye column titled “Farewell, On Freedom,” announced that he is leaving the religious freedom beat and resigning from the RNS editorial team. It is a loss for us all, but not a surprise when one considers how long he has been focused intensely on searing, tragic tales of humans being religiously oppressive with each other. His last report references approximately 100 religious freedom and human rights stories, an education to anyone drawn to these issues.

A Voice for the Religiously Oppressed

The best news in the midst of these bleak circumstances is that last December the U.S. Senate confirmed President Barack Obama's appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State. The ambassador-at-large is, by law, a principal advisor to the president and secretary of state and serves as the United States’ chief diplomat on issues of religious freedom worldwide. 

Saperstein has been an interfaith activist and peacemaker championing religious freedom for the past 40 years, and he is universally admired in faith, interfaith, and social justice communities, a rare achievement.

Recently he testified at a Congressional hearing on religious freedom, and the following excerpts tell us what he’s learned since then:

“During my tenure as Ambassador at Large, I’ve noticed certain enduring truths. In many countries, religious freedom flourishes. People are free to choose their faith, change their faith, speak about their faith to others, teach their faith to their children, dissent from religion, build places of worship, and worship alone or in fellowship with others.

“In such societies, denominations and faith groups organize as they see fit. Interfaith cooperation flourishes. Religious communities contribute significantly to the social welfare and serve as a moral compass to their nations.

“Yet in far too many countries people face daunting, alarming, and growing challenges because of their beliefs. In countries with proud traditions of multi-faith cooperation where positive coexistence was once the norm, we have witnessed growing numbers of religious minorities being driven out of their historic homelands. And in too many countries, prisoners of conscience suffer cruel punishment for their religious beliefs and practices.

“The abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction are the fastest growing challenge to religious freedom worldwide.

“Repressive governments routinely subject their citizens to violence, detention, discrimination, and undue surveillance, for simply exercising their faith or identifying with a religious community.

Rabbi David Saperstein – Photo: Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism 

His most important achievement this year was publishing the International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, an in-depth review of religious freedom in the world with country-by-country analysis. Published annually now, Rabbi Saperstein explains its importance: “There is an absolute and unequivocal need to give voice to the religiously oppressed in every land afraid to speak of what they believe in; who face death and live in fear, who worship in underground churches, mosques or temples, who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid killing and persecution simply because they love God in their own way or question the existence of God.

This month TIO features several stories introducing religious freedom and its many arenas. Next month we will drill down deeper into this subject, so critical to the interfaith enterprise and the future of humankind.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, has written, “Religious liberty is the canary in the mine for civil and personal liberties. Lands filled with people willing to persecute, harass, discriminate, kill, denigrate, and more those with whom they disagree spiritually and even more people willing to overlook or excuse such crimes are potential hothouses for the most virulent forms of violence.”