By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, Nov. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Religious freedom is a human right, affirmed the U.S. State Department in its International Religious Freedom Report 2010, which covers the year ending up to June 30.
“The right to believe or not to believe, without fear of government interference or restriction, is a basic human right,” the report affirmed, which was published Nov. 17. It is a global concern, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it continued. As such: “It provides an essential foundation for a society based on human dignity, robust civil society, and sustainable democracy.”
The report proposed an analytical framework to describe the main situations in which religious freedom is not respected.
1) Authoritarian governments. This situation is where the most severe abuses take place, the report stated. In these countries governments strive to completely control all religious thought and expression and consider some religious groups as enemies of the state as they provide an alternative set of beliefs that challenges the ruling ideology.
2) Hostility toward non-traditional and minority religious groups. While not amounting to an attempt to exert complete control there are serious abuses when governments intimidate and harass religious communities and do nothing in the face of intolerant acts against them. This is particularly a problem when a government is comprised of a majority ethnic or religious group that suppresses minorities.
3) Failure to address societal intolerance. Some states fail to address intolerance against certain religious groups. Even though there may be laws guaranteeing religious freedom this is not sufficient as they have to be enforced and violators of them brought to justice.
4) Institutionalized bias. Governments sometimes restrict religious freedom by enacting discriminatory legislation or by actively favoring one religion over another. This can lead to bias against new or historically repressed religious communities.
5) Illegitimacy. Some governments discriminate against specific groups by asserting they are illegitimate or dangerous to individuals or societal order. In this situation such groups are often described as “cults” or “sects.”
The lack of freedom is more than just a concern in individual states. The report noted that in past years a number of countries with Muslim populations have attempted to promote in international bodies such as the United Nations the concept of “defamation of religions.”
The State Department observed that, while disrespect for religious beliefs should not be tolerated, such initiatives can be used to undermine freedom of religion and expression. Instead of seeking to ban speech governments would be better off by developing procedures to deal with discrimination and bias, the report recommended.
Another international issue is the growing trend to forcibly return people to their home country, where they are likely to encounter persecution because of their religious activities. The report singled out China for this abuse, for attempting to forcibly return Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists from other countries.
Most of the report is dedicated to a country-by-country analysis of the state of religious freedom. Continuing with China the State Department commented that there is tolerance for only five religious practices – Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant – and this is limited to the state authorized patriotic associations of these religions.
In the 12-month period covered by the report there were some positive developments. The State Department observed that the authorities allowed the social service work of registered religious groups, as well as some foreign faith-based groups. There was also some improvement in coverage by the official media regarding the topics of religious freedom and the status of unregistered churches.
Nevertheless, government officials continued to scrutinize and, in some cases, harass registered and unregistered religious and spiritual groups, the report stated. Moreover, in spite of official denials that anybody was detained or arrested solely because of their religion, the government detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison a number of religious leaders and their followers.
There was less good news regarding Pakistan. The country was recently in the headlines, following concern over the fate of Asia Bibi, a woman condemned to death for allegedly blaspheming Mohammad. Pope Benedict XVI even publically mentioned her plight. Earlier this week she was pardoned by the president of Pakistan.
The State Department noted that while in the past year the government took some steps to improve the situation of religious minorities, serious problems still remain. Both the number and severity of high-profile cases of religious intolerance increased in the past year. This was the not only the work of individuals, but also of law enforcement officers and security forces, that either abused people in custody or failed to prevent or address cases of abuse. For example, on September 16, 2009, a young Christian man, Robert Fanish, who had been accused of blasphemy, died while in police custody.
Laws prohibiting blasphemy continued to be used against Christians and members of other religious groups, the report stated. A problem compounded by the fact that lower courts often did not require adequate evidence in blasphemy cases. As a result some accused and convicted persons spend years in jail before higher courts eventually overturned their convictions. A total of 1,032 persons have been charged under the blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2009.
Egypt was another problematic country singled out by the report. Respect for religious freedom remained poor, with no improvements over the past year. In addition to discrimination and harassment by authorities the government also failed to prosecute those guilty of violence against Coptic Christians. This failure to act means there is a “climate of impunity” when it comes to crimes against Copts, the report accused. There are also lengthy delays, of up to many years, in obtaining permits to repair or extend existing churches.
Those who convert from Islam to Christianity continue to face problems in obtaining new documents such as national identity cards and marriage licenses. The government also discriminates against Christians in hiring for position in the public sector.
North Korea, currently the subject of much attention for its military aggression, showed no improvement in its “extremely poor level of respect for religious freedom,” the report stated. Some visitors commented that religious services at state-authorized churches appeared staged and were used to give political support for the regime.
In May this year 23 Christians were arrested for belonging to an underground church in Kuwol-dong, in the South Pyongan Province. According to reports three were executed, and the others were sent to a political prison camp.
In Vietnam the report observed that there were some improvements and it noted that President Nguyen Minh Triet met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Nevertheless, significant problems remained, according to the State Department.
In the past year there were instances of occasional harassment and excessive use of force against members of religious groups by some local government officials. Other problems included delays in approving registrations of Protestant congregations, and the continuing lack of approval by the government to translate the Bible into H’mong, after five years of waiting for permission.
The report also commented that there were reports of harsh treatment of detainees who were accused of initiating violence during a protest over the closure of a cemetery in the Catholic Con Dau parish.
A number of other countries were mentioned in the report’s summary as lacking in religious freedom. They included Iran, I
raq, Saudi Arabia, Burma, Cuba and Venezuela.
“In too many places, people are targeted because of their religious beliefs, and they face discrimination, intimidation, and even violent attacks,” said Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, at the report’s presentation. A sad situation that continues in many countries and is often overlooked by the media and public opinion.