Religious Freedom at Risk

Latest Report Highlights Dangers

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 30, 2012 ( The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 2012 annual report, along with its recommendations to the Secretary of State as to which nations should be included on the list of “countries of particular concern” or CPCs.

On the list were: Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

“Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities,” commented USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo.

The report, at more than 300 pages long, contained detailed information both on the CPC countries and another group that are on a Watch List for the period from April 1 last year up to the end of February.

In its introduction the report noted that while much attention has been paid to the ongoing economic problems there has been an unnoticed crisis of equal severity regarding religious freedom.

“To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities,” the report affirmed.

The introduction also criticized the lack of action by the federal government regarding USCIRF’s recommendations. Currently only eight countries have been listed by the State Department as CPCs and for two of them, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, Presidential waivers have been granted, meaning that no actions have been taken against them.

Arab Spring

The report examined the consequences of the Arab Spring in Egypt. In general it has led to a dramatic worsening of religious freedom. Coptic Christians and their churches have suffered repeated attacks and instead of defending them military forces have, instead, turned their guns on Christians, the report denounced.

“The ongoing violence, and the failure to prosecute those responsible, continued to foster a climate of impunity, especially in Upper Egypt,” the report commented.

In fact, during 2011around 100 Coptic Christians were killed in sectarian attacks, more than the total for the previous ten years, the report noted. It called upon the transitional government to undertake reforms to guarantee religious freedom.

Discrimination against Christians means they are very scarce in the upper ranks of government or the military. There are only a few Christian members of parliament and none who are university deans or judges.

Another CPC examined in the report was Nigeria. Over 800 people were killed in the riots in the north of the country following the presidential elections in April last year, and over 430 churches were burned or destroyed.

According to the report the militant group Boko Haram has increased its targeting of Christians and has threatened to kill any of them who remain in the north.

Since 1999 more than 14,000 Nigerians have been killed in religious related violence. While religion is just one dimension in the sectarian clashes it has been used, the report observed, to foster discord.

The report used strong terms to describe the situation in Pakistan, accusing the government of tolerating “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.”

Not only are there repressive blasphemy laws and discriminatory legislation, but the government has also failed to bring to justice those who persecute or kill Christians and has not taken action against those who incite violence.

One recent case referred to in the report took place in January this year when a group of men attacked a church in Sindh province in response to children singing carols. They hit the children and vandalized the church. Local police did not take action and the Christian community had to apologize to the assailants.

Forced conversions

Christian girls are also under attack. The report said that according to Catholic NGOs at least 700 Christian girls are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam every year.

Turning to China USCIRF stated that the government continued to violate its international obligations to protect religious freedom. Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, and Christians belonging to unregistered churches all face persecution.

Hundreds of unregistered Protestants were detained by authorities last year according to the report, up to a thousand according to one source. Dozens of unregistered Catholic clergy either remain in detention or have disappeared. One source cited in the report said that at least 40 Catholic bishops remain imprisoned or detained.

Government estimates put at 100 million the total number of those in China who belong to all faiths, but the report said that the number of religious followers is higher and growing rapidly. It spoke of hundreds of millions of Chinese who now openly manifest their faith and some senior government officials have praised the work of religious communities.

“Religious freedom abuses must never go unchallenged,” the report’s introduction stated. An attitude still not shared by many to the detriment of those who continue to suffer for their beliefs.

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