Religious freedom is a rare commodity in many regions of the world, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report.
About 74 percent of the world’s population lives in countries “with serious restrictions on religious freedom,” according to the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein. This includes countries where people can be severely punished for blasphemy or apostasy and where the government can demolish worship spaces.
Compare these grievous offenses against religious liberty to how the same term was used to defend Christian bakers who didn’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, and it’s hard not to be incredulous about the way the words “religious liberty” is bandied about in America today.
Religious freedom is a fundamental right in the United States, one that is enshrined not only in the Bill of Rights but also in the narratives Americans tell about the country’s history. Children are taught in elementary school that the Pilgrims came to North America seeking a land where they had the freedom to worship God the way they saw fit. The story goes that they found that religious liberty here ― unless, of course, you were the kind of Christian who celebrated Christmas, or revered the pope, or believed in anything deemed heretical by the religious establishment.
The truth is that both in the past and present, the ideal of religious freedom that Americans hold so dear, that is meant to protect the diversity that makes this country great, has often dissolved into a cover for intolerance.
In the not so distant past, Americans used religion to discriminate against interracial marriage. Nowadays, proponents of religious liberty have repeatedly used that term to claim a right to discriminate against women and LGBT people ― whether it’s refusing to give female employees wide access to contraceptive services or refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
These lawsuits add fuel to what has been called the “Christian persecution complex,” the idea that Americans Christians are being targeted and discriminated against en masse for their beliefs ― despite the fact that Christians enjoy immense privilege in America by being the de facto majority religion.
In the past month alone, a federal judge in Detroit, Michigan sided with a Christian funeral home that fired a transgender employee who wanted to dress as a woman.
Earlier in August, a powerful coalition of religious liberty organizations and denominations banded together successfully against a California bill that was originally intended to protect LGBT students attending religious universities from discrimination. In the end, the wording of the bill was softened and so-called religious freedom proponents openly rejoiced in the fact that faith-based universities had an exemption from Title IX that allowed them to freely discriminate against LGBT students who are in relationships and who want to use restrooms, locker rooms, and housing that corresponds to their gender identity.
Language matters. The term "religious liberty" should be used as a shield that protects equality within a pluralistic society, not a sword against minorities. Even if a believer's religious convictions are genuine and sincerely held (which is certainly the case for many conservative Christians), fighting for your right to use your religion to discriminate is not the same thing as fighting for your religious freedom. This distinction becomes even more stark when you take into stock the many countries in the world where worshipping in the way one sees fit is actually a threat to a person’s life.
To put into context the increasingly popular notion that religious freedom is under attack in America, here are just a few of countries mentioned in the International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 where religious freedom is not a given.
An activist named Mohammad Cheikh Ould Mohammad (also known as “MKheytir”) is facing the death penalty in Mauritania for publishing an online article. The government claims the activist criticized the Prophet Mohammad in his piece. The article “implicitly blamed the country’s religious establishment for the plight of the country’s forgeron (blacksmith) caste, which historically has suffered discrimination,” according to the State Department.
Syria’s civil war began in 2011 as an uprising against the country’s government. Since then, it has become increasingly sectarian, pitting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite Muslim allies against Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of the population. According to the State Department, the Syrian government has been targeting members of the Sunni majority in the country, destroying their property and their worship spaces. The government has “targeted towns and neighborhoods in various parts of the country for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment on the basis of the religious affiliation of residents,” the report said.
The State Department emphasized concerns about North Korean government denying freedom of thought, conscience and religion to its people. The report reads, “The government’s policy towards religion has been to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences, while suppressing internally all nonstate-sanctioned religious activities.” However, arrests and punishments have been difficult to verify because of the country’s isolation.
In Iran, the government can execute people based on the charge of moharebeh, which translates to “enmity towards God.” The State Department alleges that at least 20 individuals were executed due to that charge in 2015 and hundreds of other remain imprisoned, the vast majority of whom are Muslims.
Since 2013, Chinese authorities in the province of Zhejiang have targeted Christian worship spaces that they deemed were “illegal” structures. Officials have ordered over 1,500 crosses removed from church structures, and even ordered that several Protestant and Catholic churches be destroyed. A human rights lawyer working to help these churches was seized by authorities in August 2015 and released in March 2016.
Some migrants who have fled Eritrea describe it as a totalitarian state that demands full control of its citizens ― restricting people’s movements and ability to assemble in groups, and forcing many to serve in the military. According to the State Department, only four religions are officially recognized by the government ― the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam; the Roman Catholic Church; and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea, a Lutheran-affiliated denomination. All other groups are required to register with the government and submit detailed documents about their activities.
“As a result of the registration requirement and the government’s inaction on
applications, unregistered religious communities lack a legal basis on which to practice their faiths publicly, including holding services or weddings," the State Department report claims. "Eritrean security forces routinely arrest followers of [unregistered] faiths, including at clandestine prayer meetings and religious ceremonies. "
After decades of military rule, Myanmar held a general election in 2015. Although it was a step towards greater democracy in the country, in terms of religious freedom, the country’s new government hasn’t “taken any steps” to reverse old laws that have the power to “infringe on the exercise of religious freedom and other human rights.” According to the State Department, these laws were pushed forward by Buddhist leaders and appear to target members of the country’s Muslim minority.
Central African Republic
Although the Central African Republic’s interim constitution provides for religious freedom, the State Department reported that government officials “exercised limited control or influence in most of the country and police and gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias.” In 2015, there were multiple incidents of violence between Christian and Muslims in the country, including “killings, beatings, kidnappings, forced conversions to Christianity, destruction of mosques and churches, and house burnings.”
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