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04/09/2012 United States (Forbes) – Dictators have been falling in the Middle East, but that doesn’t mean freedom is inevitably expanding. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring has turned into something far different than hoped. Especially for religious minorities.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has released its latest report with grim news. According to USCIRF: “Across the global landscape, the pivotal human right of religious freedom was under escalating attack. To an alarming extent, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief was being curtailed, often threatening the safety and survival of innocent persons, including members of religious minorities.”

Religious liberty matters even to people who are not religious. Everyone has a transcendent worldview. Protecting the right to believe also means protecting the right not to believe.

Moreover, religious liberty is an important indicator of political freedom and other human rights. A society and state which refuse to respect the most fundamental right of conscience in religion are unlikely to respect it elsewhere. Religious liberty is the proverbial canary in the mine. If people are oppressed because of their religious faith, they are likely to be victimized for holding other unpopular beliefs.

The problem is not just direct state oppression. Some governments aid and abet persecution by not protecting religious minorities. Noted the Commission: “The failure to prevent or punish violence against vulnerable religious minorities provided a grim portrait of how states can create or fuel a culture of impunity, encouraging private citizens or groups to threaten, intimidate, and even murder others.”

Religious persecution is widespread, but it is not in America, where the First Amendment guarantees Americans a degree of religious liberty that is almost unique in the world. Cultural hostility to religion exists, but is not the same as religious persecution.

The Commission focused on 25 particularly egregious countries. It advocated that the State Department rate 16 of them as “Countries of Particular Concern” because they are responsible for “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty. USCIRF put another nine nations on its “Watch List” because of “negative trends that could develop into severe violations.”

Alas, the CPCs included many supposed American allies and friends.

Burma. The military junta relinquished power to a nominally civilian government, which is liberalizing the political process. Nevertheless, the legacy of past abuses lives on. Reported the Commission: “Religious groups, particularly ethnic minority Christians and Muslims and Buddhist monks suspected of engaging in anti-government activity, faced intrusive monitoring, arrest, mistreatment, destruction or desecration of property, severe restrictions on worship, education, and religious activities, and targeted violence.”

However, if present trends continue, Burma may fall off of the list of its own accord. For instance, the government has reached a ceasefire with the rebellious Karen National Union, which represents the predominantly Christian Karen. Moreover, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from house arrest to parliament. Much more remains to be done, but for the first time in decades the prognosis appears positive.

China. The People’s Republic of China is far freer than it was during the maniacal and murderous reign of Mao Zedong. However, noted USCIRF: “The Chinese government continues to violate severely its international obligations to protect the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Religious groups and individuals considered to threaten national security or social harmony, or whose practices are deemed superstitious, cult-like, or beyond the vague legal definition of ‘normal religious activities’ face severe restrictions, harassment, detention, imprisonment, and other abuses.”

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