The State of Religious Freedom: 2 New Reports Published

Different Faces of Same Coin

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On Monday the U.S. Department of State published its annual review on religious liberty, covering the year 2012.

Suzan J. Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, at the report’s presentation to the media urged governments to condemn religious intolerance and to take action against those who commit crimes because of religious animosity.

Unfortunately, Cook observed, in a number of countries intolerance toward religious minorities is on the rise, an intolerance that too often is expressed in violence.

“The right to religious freedom is inherent in every human being,” the report stated. A right, however, that in 2012 was not respected in many nations.

The report made no change to the eight countries already named by the Department of State as being Countries of Particular Concern: Burma; China; Eritrea; Iran; North Korea; Saudi Arabia; Sudan; and Uzbekistan.

Apart from specific countries the report noted a general problem with laws against blasphemy and apostasy, which are frequently used in a discriminatory manner.

The report also found that in 2012 there was a continued increase in anti-Semitism, particularly in Venezuela, Egypt and Iran. 

Coinciding with the report’s release Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Ira Forman, a former leader of the National Jewish Democratic Council, will serve as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Regarding the reports on the worst offenders the report observed that in spite of some positive news from Burma, such as the release of most of the monks arrested following pro-democracy protests in 2007, the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change notably in 2012.

Religious organizations continued to be under government surveillance and restrictions continued on the freedom to assemble and express opinions. The prohibition against repairing or building new facilities for worship continues.


State control over religion in China continues, the report noted. Local authorities often pressured people to join one of the officially-approved patriotic associations and also punished people who belonged to unregistered religious groups.

Those enrolling at the seminaries or institutions of religious learning of the patriotic associations are required by the government to demonstrate “political reliability.”

In general, the report commented that the government’s respect for religious freedom fell well short of international standards.

Among the measures used to pressure members of unregistered religious groups were labor camps and psychiatric hospitals.

Religious minorities, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, continued to experience discrimination, due to both their religious beliefs and their condition as ethnic minorities.

Another country where religious freedom was sorely lacking in 2012 was Iran. In fact, the report said that the government’s respect for religious freedom declined in the past year. Prison conditions worsened for those detained due to their religious activities and the arrest and harassment of religious minorities increased.

Both government rhetoric and the officially-controlled media continued threatening and negative campaigns against religious minorities. There was also discrimination against the minorities in such areas as employment, housing, and education.

Apart from government policy the report observed that Iran’s constitution and laws severely restrict freedom of religion. The constitution does not allow Muslims to change their religion and conversion from Islam is punishable by death. Proselytizing by non-Muslims also carries the death penalty.

European countries

The second report published this week, also on Monday, was the 2012 “Cases of Intolerance or Discrimination Against Christians,” by the Austrian-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe.

Hate speech laws are also being used against Christians, particularly on two subjects: Islam and homosexuality.

“The European Court of Human Rights has shown increasing support for censorship arguments,” the report stated.

Protecting freedom of speech is not without risks, the report conceded, but if we accept the idea that the state should censor public debate, then there is no logical stopping point regarding which ideas will be stifled.

Invoking the principle of equality has also led to restrictions on religious freedom, the report explained. The principle of equality before the law is now being extended to the arena of moral choices and how people treat each other.

This has led to harsh anti-discrimination legislation in a number of countries. These laws are affecting people who rent out rooms or venues for celebrations. It also impinges on organizations at the moment of employing new staff. Even Christian dating agencies have come under fire from authorities.

While the discrimination faced by Christians in Western Europe is of a different kind from that described in the report by the Department of State, it is, nevertheless, a real threat to religious freedom and one that is worsening.

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On the Net:

Department of State report

Report by the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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