On Monday May 20th, Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual Religious Freedom Report for 2012. It was grim reading. An Annual report on the state of religious freedom around the world is required by Congress' International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. It follows recommendations submitted to the State Department by the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
The document notes trends of governments promoting violence against persons of faith; governmental restriction of religious practice; persecution of minority religions or sects; failure to hold citizens responsbile who themselves persecute persons of faith. Several themes reveal many disturbing negative trends and provide the details. The main themes are: (1) Governmental restrictions and abuse; (2) Laws covering blasphemy, apostasy and conversion; ( 3) A rise in Anti-Semitism; ( 4) Societal Intolerance and Violence; ( 5) The problem of impunity for those who violate religious liberty.
Governmental Restrictions and Abuses: In China, the government has harassed, detained, arrested or sentenced to prison a number of religious adherents, including imposing a stringent regulation of the religious activities of Uighur Muslims and of Catholic clergy not affiliated with the government's ' Catholic Patriotic Association'. There were 83 self-immolations by Tibetan monks and nuns in 2012. In Vietnam, the government harrassed and abused followers of the Hoa Hao Buddhist church. In Burma, the government actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions. Some Muslim villages were burned to the ground. In Saudi Arabia, the public practice of any religion other than Islam is prohibited. Shias continue to face discrimination. In Iran, the arrest and harassment of Sunni Muslims increased significantly. A Christian pastor Saeed Abedini was placed under house arrest. In Cuba, the authorities prevented many Catholics from leaving their homes to participate with Pope Benedict XVI's mass. Jehovah's Wintesses and Mormons in Cuba lack any official recognition. In Sudan, a Catholic church and an Episcopal church were destroyed by the government. At least 1, 500 have been imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, including several dozen members of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions are also on the rise in Europe. The impact of these on restrictions to education, employment, public safety or the right to wear religious attire remain important issues of religious freedom.
Blasphemy, Apostasy and Conversion: The many laws around the world dealing with blasphemy, apostasy or the refusal to allow conversion often violate freedom of religion and expression and are often applied in blatently discriminatory manners. In Iran, the government considers Bahais ( who originated in Iran!) to be apostates and required arrested Bahais to recant their religious affiliation as a precondition for release or to gain entry to institutes of higher education. In Indonesia, police sanctioned the coerced conversion to Sunni Islam of dozens of Shia followers in East Java. In many countries, such as Iran, blasphemy and apostasy laws can carry the penalty of death. Such laws have increased since the Arab spring.
A Rise in Anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism also seems on the rise with the desecration of Holocaust memorials in the Ukraine and the painting of swastikas on synagogues in Russia. President Morsy of Egypt answered amen to a prayer of an Iman who prayed: " O Allah, destroy the Jews and their supporters." Government controlled media in Venezuela published numerous anti-Semitic statements in relation to opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, a Catholic with Jewish ancestors.
Societal Violence and Intolerance: Religious freedom can be a bulwark against violent extremism. According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there is a strong correlation between countries that impose more severe and inappropriate governmental restrictions on religious freedom and those more prone to sectarian violence. Governments that repress freedom of religion and freedom of expression typically create a societal climate of intolerance and impunity that emboldens those who foment hatred and violence within society. Societal intolerance increased in many regions in 2012. A video on the internet in March showed armed Muslim men in the British cemetery in Benghazi, Libya desecrating Christian and Jewish headstones and attempting to destroy a large crucifix with sledge hammers. In Nigeria, Boko Haram extremists took responsibility for the 15 church attacks that killed more than 150 people, including scores of Christians, during worship service. In Mali, violent extremist groups ousted rebels who had seized control of the northern two-thirds of the country, destroying religious monuments and imposing their own interpretation of Sharia law. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists launched attacks on Christian churches and tolerated a growing discrimation against Muslimes.
The Problem of Immunity: Whatever the laws on the books, in many countries police arrested victims of attacks and protected the attackers rather than the victims. The Egyptian government generally failed to prevent, investigate or prosecute crimes against Coptic Christians. In April, in Sudan, rioters in Khartoum brushed aside inadequate local police forces and burned an evangelical church compound used by a mix of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese worshippers. The authorities did not charge any of the attackers.
The countries singled out for special mention for violation of religious freedom in the 2012 report were: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. Critics suggest that the list should have been expanded to include: Egypt, Iraw, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam.
Two final observations. As President Barack Obama has stated: " Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose.. we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right. It is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world can not know lasting peace." Yet the evidence is that, as the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life puts it: there is ' a rising tide of restrictions on religion'. Restrictions on religion rose in each of the five major regions of the world. The question is whether the government will take the data from these reports and make them more central aspects of American policy and foreign relations. Retired Ambassador Randolph Bell says that the United States need to keep attention focused on the cause of repressed religious people. " If they are not there", Bell said of the reports, " then wouldn't people who are focused entirely on U.S. trade and economics, or people focused on some other aspect of global affairs, say climate change, just go about their business?"
The final observation is a reminder that at Vatican Council II in its decree on religious liberty the church itself taught that such liberty is an essential component of human dignity. While, as Catholics, we should monitor the exclusion of Catholics from full religious freedom in countries such as Vietnam, we, no less, should be concerned for the essential religious liberty of Shia or Sunni Muslims; for Jews; for Bahais and Jehovah's Witnesses; and yes, as Pope Francis noted in his remarkable homily on May 22: for atheists as well!