Abroad, at home: Staying informed on religious freedom

“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you are also in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).

Two weeks ago, Iran’s court of appeals upheld the six-year prison sentence of Farshid Fat’hi. His crime? Practicing Christianity.

Discrimination, marginalization, detainment, imprisonment, torture and even death are routinely occurring around the world. Profoundly troubling is the role of government complicity in the persecution of individuals and groups.

A Forum on Religion and Public Life report issued in 2011 by The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan and non-profit research organization, showed that nearly a third of the globe’s population — 2.2 billion people —  live in countries where religious persecution increased between 2006 and 2009.

The two countries with the largest populations in the world, India and China, are among the worst offenders in harassment or government restrictions on religion, researchers found. The Pew report also stated that across the globe, Christians are being targeted.

A German court ruled in June that the circumcision of young boys on religious grounds is a violation of a newborn’s human rights since it constitutes “inflicting grievous bodily harm,” which the right of parents to raise their children in a religion does not override. This decision effectively outlaws Judaism itself, since to be an adult Jew in good standing, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old.

On Aug. 1, Saudi Arabia deported 35 Ethiopian Christians after imprisoning them under violent and brutal conditions since December for holding a prayer meeting in a private home. They were charged with breaking a Saudi law barring men and women from meeting together in the same room because, a church leader said, “if they charge them with meeting for practicing Christianity, they will come under pressure from the international human rights organizations as well as Western countries.”

Last weekend, Muslim terrorists demanded that Nigeria’s Christian president convert to Islam or resign. The week before, 19 Nigerians in church for Bible study were slaughtered by two gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. The Islamist sect Boko Haram, which has vowed to make Nigeria an all-Islamic country, bombed three churches there in June, and has taken “credit” for the killing of hundreds.

Religious minorities continue to suffer

In nearly half of the world’s countries, governments either abuse religious minorities or do not intervene in cases of societal abuse, said Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, who presented the U.S. State Department’s 2011 International Religious Freedom Report on July 30.

“In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, people have been killed, imprisoned, or detained because they violated or criticized blasphemy laws,” the ambassador said. She also noted a rise in anti-Semitism, from Holocaust-denying websites sanctioned by Iran to an openly anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, in Hungary.

The State Department listed the same eight “countries of particular concern” as it had announced last September: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. That designation is reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.
State Department purged reports

For the first time ever, this year the State Department removed the sections covering religious freedom from the annual Country Reports on Human Rights. In lieu of including reports covering 2011, it referred the public to the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, or to the annual report of the U.S.

Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was released last September and which covers events in 2010 but not what happened to Christians and other religious minorities in Muslim countries during the “Arab Spring.”

Leonard Leo, who recently completed a term as the USCIRF chairman, told CNS News that removing those sections was a bad idea and that ever since Congress created USCIRF in 1998, the State Department has been required to issue a separate yearly report specifically on international religious freedom.

“It means,” Leo said, “that fewer people will obtain info about what’s going on with that particular freedom or right.”

Don’t Americans deserve to be kept informed about religious liberty both abroad and at home? On Aug. 7, the Vatican warned of threats of “unprecedented gravity” to the Catholic Church’s religious liberty in the United States. We should listen.

Leighton is a former Minnesota public defender and lead blogger for the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s First Freedom Project blog (firstfreedom.mncc.org).

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