Crisis in religious freedom

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“Religious freedom is human freedom,” stated US Secretary of State John Kerry recently when he presented the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013.

We have a long journey ahead to achieve this freedom, he added, given that 75% of the world’s population lives in countries that do not respect it.

Kerry emphasized that with the report the United States is “not arrogantly telling people what to believe.”

“We’re asking for the universal value of tolerance, of the ability of people to have a respect for their own individuality and their own choices,” he explained.

The report stated that in 2013 the world experienced “the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”

These events affected millions of people, including Christians, Muslims and Hindus, along with other religions.

Syria rated a special mention, where the report said, “the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self.”

In the city of Homs, for example, the Christian community has gone from approximately 160,000 to barely 1,000.

Then, in the Central African Republic, civil strife and conflict between Christians and Muslims has caused at least 700 deaths and the displacement of more than a million people.

The threats to religious freedom took a number of forms, ranging from the criminalization of religious expression, prohibitions on conversions, blasphemy laws, and onerous registration laws for religious organizations.

Not all the news was bad. The report mentioned some positive developments, such as after a Church bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan, members of the Muslim community formed human chains around churches during their services. The same happened in Egypt, with Muslims standing in front of a Catholic Church to protect it.

These examples, however, stood out as exceptions to the normal course of events and the report singled out a number of countries as particularly egregious offenders.

The list included North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, China and Cuba. In North Korea all religious activity is severely restricted and those who do not obey the laws are harshly treated, including the death penalty.

In Egypt, in the period August 14 -17 at least 42 churches were attacked, as well as schools, orphanages, and other Christian facilities. The report accused the government of failing to prevent, investigate, or prosecute crimes against religious minorities.

Authorities also generally refuse to recognize religious conversions on legal documents. And there is continued discrimination against religious minorities in public sector employment and positions in public universities.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are being used to discriminate against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and other religious groups.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 34 new cases were registered under the blasphemy laws during 2013. At least one death sentence for blasphemy was overturned during the year, but there were 17 people awaiting execution for blasphemy and at least 20 others were serving life sentences.

The authorities have condemned attacks against Shia Muslims and Christians, but the report stated, they “generally failed to take adequate steps to hold accountable those responsible for the attacks.”

As well, there were numerous reports of law enforcement agents abusing members of religious minorities and persons accused of blasphemy while they were in custody.

According to the penal code, freedom of speech is subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam.”

In China the State Department accused the government of not respecting its international human rights commitments. In addition to rigid controls over activity by churches there are also restrictions on faith-based charities.

Catholic clergy continue to remain in detention, particularly in Hebei province, and there is continued harassment of unregistered bishops and priests.

Tajikistan is a country not normally in the headlines, but the report noted that it is the only country in the world in which the law prohibits persons under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. Moreover, Muslim women are effectively barred from attending mosques.

The ongoing conflict in Nigeria is well-known. According to the report, during 2013 the extremist Boko Haram group killed more than 1,000 people. Both Christian and Muslims were targeted, often during religious services or immediately afterward.

The federal government was ineffective in preventing or quelling the violence, the report noted, and only occasionally investigated, prosecuted, or punished those responsible.

Severe restriction on religious freedom continued last year in North Korea and those who had contact with foreign missionaries were subject to harsh penalties, including execution.

The report noted the difficulty in obtaining information about what is going on in the country, but reports by the South Korean media and independent groups all point to extreme controls over religious freedom, with an unknown number imprisoned and even executed for crimes such as possessing a Bible.

The report only covers events up to the end of 2013. Since then the events in the Middle East and parts of Africa have worsened, particularly in Iraq. Such reports as these provide valuable information, the question remains as to whether anything will be done to ensure a greater respect for religious freedom.

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By Fr. John Flynn/ Zenit