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The 209th General Assembly (1997) reaffirmed "that human rights must be universal in application or they lose their authenticity" and encouraged "cooperation between religious communities both in resolving points of conflict and in developing solidarity in situations where any or all religious communities suffer from the selective or general practices of the state or other forces in society."

UN Human Rights Council provides framework to address defamation

The 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) long pressed for a legally binding action by the UN that would criminalize words or actions deemed defamatory towards a particular religion. And repeatedly a majority in the UN General Assembly approved nonbinding resolutions against "defamation of religion." In a shift in 2011, however, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted unanimously for a resolution on religious intolerance that did not include defamation language.

Meanwhile, President Obama articulated a set of universal rights the U.S. supports—including freedoms of speech, peaceful assembly, and religion—in his May 19 speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East. He said about freedom of religion, "America will work to see . . . that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them." Now Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu (pictured) have met in mid-July and worked toward a new approach that would not pit freedom of religious expression against the fight to protect religious sensitivities. Both leaders outlined steps they would take to cultivate religious and cultural diversity along guidelines set by the UNHRC. Ihsanoglu said, "We cannot and must not ignore the implications of hate speech and incitement of discrimination and violence," but he indicated the OIC did not want to inhibit free expression. Clinton said the UNHRC gives a comprehensive framework for addressing the issue internationally. She added, "In the United States, I will admit, there are people who still feel vulnerable or marginalized as a result of their religious beliefs. And we have seen how the incendiary actions of just a very few people . . . can create wide ripples of intolerance. . . . So we are focused on promoting interfaith education and collaboration, enforcing antidiscrimination laws, protecting the rights of all people to worship as they choose, and to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don't feel that they have the support to do what we abhor." The U.S. government continues to have domestic critics who say it has not done enough.

House approves envoy for religious minorities

On July 29 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved HR 440, a bill by Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna Eshoo (R-CA) to create a special State Department envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. It will now be sent to the Senate. Wolf said that, if the international community did not speak concerning human rights under assault, the prospects for religious pluralism in the region were bleak. Wolf is listed as one of the Presbyterians in Congress; Eshoo is from traditional Christian minorities of the Middle East.

State Department envoy to combat anti-Semitism visits Arab nations

Hannah Rosenthal (pictured), the U.S. State Department's special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, visited several Arab nations in June in an effort to persuade their officials to remove intolerant references to non-Muslim religions from textbooks and to introduce positive references to Judaism. She was particularly concerned about Saudi books, which have been found in use as far away as Argentina and Pakistan. After her trip, Rosenthal reported that when "a conversation about religious tolerance becomes tense, [the Arab governments] shut it down or they go to Israel-Palestine." Rosenthal also met with an official of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body responsible for assistance to Palestinian refugees, concerning their failure to use UN-created materials about the Holocaust. UNRWA officials have explained that they are bound by agreements with host nations. Finally, Rosenthal also addressedthe European Jewish Press Second Conference on Jewish media in Europe. She spoke of the need for non-Jews to condemn anti-Semitic incidents and vice versa.

U.S. government has mechanisms to address religious freedom 

The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 made the promotion of religious freedom for all persons an objective of U.S. foreign policy. The IRFA established a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent government entity charged with monitoring the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments. The USCIRF issued its twelfth annual report in May 2011. Its policy recommendations, in turn, are reviewed by the State Department, which issues a yearly report on international religious freedom to Congress.

Leonard Leo (pictured left), a Catholic, chairs the USCIRF.Other commissioners include Christian evangelicals Don Argue and Richard Land, Muslim law professor Azizah al-Hibri and imam Talal Eid, Jewish human rights leader Felice Gaer, National Baptist leader William Shaw, and religious freedom activist Nina Shea. The USCIRF executive director is Jackie Wolcott, former ambassador to the Security Council. Baptist minister Suzan Johnson Cook (pictured), the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, is a non-voting ex-officio member.

Placed on USCIRF list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) are Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and for the first time, Egypt. An internet map shows not only the CPCs but also USCIRF's "watch list countries" and "additional countries monitored." See a Forbes magazine summary of some of the issues involved.  

The State Department has released both the 2010 Report on Human Rights Practices and the 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom. Its somewhat shorter list of CPCs is Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan; Pakistan in particular is notably missing from the list. See an executive summary of the report.

"The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy," a Georgetown University study, says that international religious freedom policy has had minimal impact on persecution and is viewed by others as an attack on majority religious communities, cultural imperialism, and a front for American missionaries. A July conference on "Stop Religious Persecution Now!" heard Southern Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke offer four "achievable" short-term goals to combat persecution: (1) authorize amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act which extend the original IRFC and would also enable work with NGOs and strengthen sanctions; (2) pass a bill that would provide a special religious freedom envoy for countries in the Near East and South Central Asia; (3) promote internet firewall-breaching to enable internet access to people who would otherwise not be able to have it; (4) hold hearings on China's repression of faith groups. 


Religious freedom as a human right faces challenges

An "expectation of fundamental entitlements," Michael Boylan (pictured left) writes in a New York Times blog posting, "is what we talk about when we talk about human rights." This may be entitlement to affordable food or speaking one's mind publicly. Boylan points out that there is controversy over whether "every person on earth has certain rights just by virtue of being a person alive on the planet" (what he calls "natural human rights"). Neither the views of (Chinese) Confucian thought or Islamic thought support "natural human rights," he says.

Seventh-day Adventist leader John Graz (pictured right) sees three trends that increasingly challenge freedom of religion: governments want to control religion more; governments partner with religion against minority religions; and religions see proselytism as an attack.

Assassinated Pakistani Christian honored by U.S. commission

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom dedicated its twelfth annual report (2011) to a Pakistani, Shahbaz Bhatti (pictured), who stood up and spoke out against the misuse of his country's blasphemy laws. A Catholic  Christian, Bhatti was the first person appointed as a full Minister of Minority Affairs and the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet. He was ultimately assassinated in what World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit called an act by "religious extremists because [Bhatti] was critical of the controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan."

The slain minister's legacy could be eliminated, church sources said, by the government's plan to eliminate the national Ministry for Religious Minorities and several other ministries. The government says the change will provide provincial autonomy, an intention which frightens minorities.

At the end of May a leader of the Pakistani Jamiat Ulema-e Islam party demanded that the Bible be banned because it has "blasphemous" insertions, according to The News International. The clerics said "several stories have been inserted into [the Bible] charging various prophets with a variety of moral crimes, which undermine sanctity of the holy figures;" Muslims hold the prophets in high esteem and would not think of committing blasphemy against them. As long as the courts acted within the law, they said, there was no chance of a clash between the two religions, Islam and Christianity.

In the U.S., the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) expressed outrage when Bhatti was killed and quoted him as saying, "It is time that the people of different faiths and the Pakistani nation stand united against the forces of intolerance, against the forces of violence."

Christians have felt a particular impact from the abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws but are not their only victims. See a January ENI item on the blasphemy laws.



Egypt's Copts are a test case

Reuters' religion editor says that "Arab dictators led secular regimes . . . to defend themselves against potential Islamist rivals. Christians had no choice but to depend on their favor." But, in the Arab Spring, protesters seek freedom and, in a more open system, Christians could lose protection as a minority. Christians ask if they will have equal rights and full citizenship, and a researcher says Egypt's Copts are the "crucial test case." The New York Times has said, "By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening . . . the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy." Tensions between religious communities arise in Egypt over the construction of churches, conversions, and family disputes—this last an especially acute issue since one of the few ways a Christian woman can get out of a marriage is through conversion. But, while there is finger pointing, there has been little discussion of the underlying legal system that treats Christians and Muslims differently. Support for Coptic Christians has been voiced in a radio news commentary by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) executive director.

Initiative to ban circumcision removed from San Francisco ballot

A San Francisco, California, ballot measure would have asked November voters to make circumcision of males under 18 years of age a misdemeanor in the city, with no religious exemption allowed, but a California Superior Court judge has now issued a decision removing the initiative from the ballot. An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) official has said, “The Court has rightly upheld the freedom for Jews and Muslims in San Francisco to choose to circumcise their children in accordance with long-standing religious tradition.” The judge's ruling came as a result of suit filed by several Jewish and Muslim plaintiffs. They had focused their argument on the inabillity of municipalities to restrict or regulate medical procedures, thus steering clear of First Amendment issues. Nonetheless, religious dimensions of the ballot proposal seemed to be accentuated by an online comic book, "Foreskin Man," created by key activist Matthew Hess, that depicts what the ADL calls "stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda."

U.S. presidential candidates asked to guard religious freedom in election

C. Welton Gaddy, the president of the Interfaith Alliance, sent a letter to eight presidential candidates on June 16—after the first debate between Republican candidates—expressing concern about the "disproportionate role religion has played during recent election cycles." Gaddy wants to preserve the "private integrity" of particular religious beliefs and "our nation's historic commitment to religious freedom." "Winning an election," he said, "is not worth" destroying or compromising these. Gaddy's concerns were broad but most particularly related to attitudes of others toward Islam and Muslims. Read the entire letter.

American Indian Religious Freedom Act hasn't stopped tobacco seizures

Since Aug. 11, 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act has been on the books to protect tribal rights "to believe, express, and exercise" their traditional religions, including "access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites." Nonetheless, tobacco continues to be confiscated occasionally from service personnel—or soldiers are forced to spill their tobacco on the ground to get rid of it. The tobacco is mistakenly identified as marijuana but is not returned after the substance has been tested and found to be acceptable. The Ho Chunk tribe is beginning to feel it must explain its practices to the military so that the seizures will stop.



Open Doors issues "Congressional Scorecard on Religious Freedom"

Open Doors USA has released a downloadable scorecard that shows actions of individual legislators in the 111th Congress on international religious freedom through analyzing important legislation and letters on the issue. Though Open Doors is a non-profit organization whose primary aim is to strengthen Christians to stand in the face of persecution, the scorecard covers issues related to other religions as well. Open Doors says that, with the involvement of its supporters, the scorecard has been used to encourage members of Congress to take desirable actions. Lindsay Vessey (pictured) is the advocacy director.

Pew study reviews global restrictions on religion

"Global Restrictions on Religion," a study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life released in December 2009, finds that a third of the world's countries have high or very high restrictions on religion. These countries contain the majority of the world's population. Restrictions may come from government and/or from individuals or societal groups. Public tensions between religious groups were reported in a vast majority of countries, with hostility leading to violence in about two-thirds of them. The study made no attempt to determine if restrictions are justified nor to measure positive levels of religious dynamism.

Religious persecution is subject of a new book

"Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe levels," say Roger Finke (of the University of Pennsylvania) (pictured) and Brian J. Grim (of the Association for Religion Data Archives) in a new book, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century (ISBN #10-0521146836 and 13-978-0521146838). Nevertheless, nothing inherent in Islam makes Muslim-majority countries poor at guarding religious freedom, they assert; and Muslim targeting of other Muslims is part of the picture. Anecdotes about religious persecution are common but Grim and Finke provide a comprehensive empirical overview, a reviewer writes. See also "Minority Religious Communities at Risk: A report prepared by the First Freedom Center." This report concludes that "if there is one over-arching...factor which exacerbates minority communities’ predicaments, it is deficiencies in the rule of law" (p 50). "In many instances, inequality of minority religious communities before the law arises not merely from inherently discriminatory legislation but also from unequal administration of justice..." (p 52). The report highlights the role of the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the advocacy of NGOs.

Pope focuses on religious freedom in every place

Pope Benedict  recently asked the representatives of some 180 countries to examine how well their countries respect the right of individuals to believe, to follow their conscience, to gather for worship, and to carry out projects inspired by their faith. He was meeting with diplomats accredited to the Holy See in January and continued an earlier focus on the connection between religious liberty and peace. He spoke of threats to religious freedom within Western countries as well as in nations more frequently cited for violating human rights. Freedom of conscience cannot be limited, he said, out of concern to uphold "other alleged new rights which, while actively promoted by certain sectors of society and inserted in national legislation or in international directives, are nonetheless merely an expression of selfish desires lacking a foundation in authentic human nature."


On the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, web site:

Religion in Focus: a periodic e-mail update on the division's (U.S.) religion cases


On the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom web site:

International human rights standards: relevant provisions of international instruments
Countries of particular concern: reports and government testimonies
Issues: defamation of religion: articles monitoring international action on the issue

Archived on this web site:

Religious conversion: release of guidelines for witness as a code of conduct

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