Religious freedom is under attack around the world

by Thomas Reese

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Religious freedom is under attack in numerous places around the world, but it is especially bad in 17 countries, according to a report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Nine of these countries have already been singled out by the State Department as "countries of particular concern" (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The commission recommends that an additional eight countries be added to this CPC list: the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.

Another 10 countries were listed by USCIRF as "Tier 2" countries, where violations are serious but not as bad as in CPC countries: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.

The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act requires the U.S. government to designate as a CPC any country whose government engages in or tolerates particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.

The same act created USCIRF as an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission to advise the president, Congress, and the State Department on international religious freedom. Every year, it publishes a report on the nations it believes should be listed as countries of particular concern by the State Department. This is the 16th report issued by the commission.

Full disclosure: I was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama a year ago, but the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the commission.

Although these countries of particular concern all have serious violations of religious freedom, their causes are varied.

For example, in China and Vietnam, although communist ideology no longer governs the economy, it still opposes religion, especially if it is outside Communist control. Officials fear any popular organization that gathers people together and has respected leaders outside their control.

On the other hand, in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the state is used to suppress any views that do not align with the state's theological orthodoxy. Members of other religions are few in these countries, so the religious police target dissidents of their own faith. People can be jailed simply for holding different views.

We also see countries where a particular religion is identified by some as part of the national identity. If you are not of that religion, you are not a good citizen.

Thus, in Burma, Buddhist militants attack Muslims (including the Rohingya) and Christians from the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni ethnic minorities. They are discriminated against as foreigners even if they have been in the country for generations.

Likewise in India, Hindu nationalists are telling Muslims to go to Pakistan and Christians to go to Europe if they are unwilling to become Hindus. For them, Indian and Hindu are synonymous.

In some countries, such as India, the state is not so much persecuting religious minorities as not protecting them from fanatics and mobs. The police often stand aside and watch others attack minorities. Here, politicians are often either afraid of the militants or dependent on them for political support.

In Pakistan, lawyers and judges have been assassinated for defending Christians and other minorities falsely accused of blasphemy. The assailants and those making false accusations are rarely punished.

While religious differences are sometimes at the root of religious conflict, often, the dispute begins as a struggle over power and resources. In the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq, certain regions, tribes, or portions of the population felt excluded from political power and the economic benefits of their country.

If the people being left out are from a different religion than the governing elite, then the potential for religious conflict escalates to an explosive level. Religious differences in these conflicts can be manipulated by cynical politicians for political purposes, but bringing religion into a political dispute is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni minority lorded over a Shiite majority. After the fall of Saddam more than a decade ago, the new Shiite-dominated government discriminated against Sunnis. Matters were made worse by the rise of the Islamic State group in Sunni areas of Iraq and the civilian casualties resulting from the attempt of Iraqi forces and Shiite militias to destroy it.

In Syria, it was the Sunni majority that suffered under an Alawi governing elite led by the Assad family. What was essentially a political conflict was inflamed by religious passions. In Syria, the Assad government's suppression of a pro-democratic movement in early 2011 devolved into a calamitous civil war. The conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents took a decidedly sectarian turn as the government targeted opponents from the country's Sunni majority and terrorist organizations rushed to exploit the chaos created by conflict.

In Africa, we have seen tribalism, corruption and an unequal distribution of resources at the root of conflict. What are initially political conflicts over resources and power are inflamed by religious passion when regions or tribes following different religions come into conflict. For example, in neglected Muslim areas, those with nothing to lose find attractive the promise that Shariah will end corruption and reduce inequality.

Thus, in Nigeria, a series of corrupt governments have drained the country of its wealth while ignoring the needs of the north. What began in the north as a regional protest soon turned violent and extreme. Religion became intertwined in ethnic, political, economic and social controversies and provided fertile ground for Boko Haram and civil war, which has claimed more than 18,000 lives since 1999.

The same is true in the Central African Republic. After coming to power in March 2013 to fight economic and political marginalization in the northeast, the mostly Muslim Seleka unleashed a reign of terror against civilians generally, and Christians especially. Since September 2013, militias of mostly Christian fighters have responded with massive atrocities of their own, launching brutal assaults against Muslim civilians, committing mass murder, and driving nearly the entire Muslim population from the country.

For the Christians in the Middle East, one of the ironies of their precarious situation is that they were much better off in Iraq under Saddam and in Syria under Assad than they are today. Likewise, things are improving for the Coptic Christians in Egypt under the new military government, even if in general, the human rights situation is terrible.

The complexity of the political, social, economic, and religious situation in CPC countries should warn us against thinking that religious freedom will improve by simply exhorting religious people to be more tolerant. This is important, but not enough.

As long as democracy is seen as a winner-take-all struggle, conflict will be intense and violent, and politicians will exploit religion for their own purposes. The stakes are simply too high for the losers who will be excluded from the jobs and benefits provided by government.

Reducing inequality and corruption will reduce both political and religious tensions.

Most importantly, the police and the judiciary must be seen and experienced as independent of political parties and religious factions. They must serve all the people fairly and equally. If private disputes between citizens of different religions cannot be fairly adjudicated through an unbiased legal system, extrajudicial violence will continue to make matters worse.

Living in a country where religious freedom is enshrined in our political system is a blessing we don't truly appreciate until we see how believers can be persecuted and oppressed in other countries. Freedom of religion is a human right that needs greater respect around the world. As the beneficiaries of such freedom, we have an obligation to help those who lack such freedom in any way we can. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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