The State Department Weighs in on Religious Freedom

International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

ICC Note:

The Department of State releases an International Religious Freedom Report each year. This is their report for 2011 which indicates which countries they believe are of high concern for violating religious freedom. This report is of great interest to ICC. In this section we’ve highlighted just a few countries, but click the link at the bottom to see the entire report. Take a moment to see what the United States Government and the State Department has to say regarding the violation of Religious Freedom.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

07/31/2012 Washington, D.C. (USDS)- To think, believe, or doubt. To speak or pray; to gather or stand apart. Such are the movements of the mind and heart, infinitives that take us beyond the finite. Freedom of religion, like all freedoms of thought and expression, are inherent. Our beliefs help define who we are and serve as a foundation for what we contribute to our societies. However, as the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report documents, too many people live under governments that abuse or restrict freedom of religion. People awaken, work, suffer, celebrate, raise children, and mourn unable to follow the dictates of their faith or conscience. Yet, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments have committed to respect freedom of religion. As President Barack Obama said, they ought to “bear witness and speak out” when violations of religious freedom occur.

With these reports, we bear witness and speak out. We speak against authoritarian governments that repressed forms of expression, including religious freedom. Governments restricted religious freedom in a variety of ways, including registration laws that favored state-sanctioned groups, blasphemy laws, and treatment of religious groups as security threats. The report focuses special attention on key trends such as the impact of political and demographic transitions on religious minorities, who tended to suffer the most in 2011; the effects of conflict on religious freedom; and the rising tide of anti-Semitism. Impacted groups, to name just a few, included Baha’is and Sufis in Iran; Christians in Egypt; Ahmadis in Indonesia and Pakistan; Muslims in a range of countries, including in Europe; Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and Uighur Muslims in China; and Jews in many parts of the world.

Religious minorities in political and demographic transitions

In 2011, the world watched as people in North Africa and the Middle East stood up for dignity, opportunity, and civil and political liberty. In countries in political transition, such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, people took the first steps of what will likely be a challenging path toward democracy. In times of transition, the situation of religious minorities in these societies comes to the forefront. Some members of society who have long been oppressed seek greater freedom and respect for their rights while others fear change. Those differing aspirations can exacerbate existing tensions.

Executive summaries of select countries

This section summarizes overall conditions in some countries where violations, improvements, or positive developments in religious freedom were noteworthy; additional information can be found in the country reports. States that Secretary Clinton designated as Countries of Particular Concern in August 2011 are denoted with an asterisk.

Cuba: The government’s respect for religious freedom improved, although significant restrictions remained in place and the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs, continued to wield regulatory control over most aspects of religious life. Most religious groups reported increased ability to cultivate new members, hold religious activities, and conduct charitable and community service projects, while at the same time reporting fewer restrictions on religious expression, importation of religious materials, and travel. However, the government’s repression of peaceful human rights activists included preventing some of them from attending religious services. For example, members of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) group were routinely prevented from attending church, a practice that was particularly pronounced in the eastern provinces of Holguin and Santiago. Adisnidia Cruz, mother of political prisoners Marcos and Antonio Lima-Cruz, was prevented from leaving her house in Holguin on Sundays to attend mass on dozens of occasions. In other instances the government harassed human rights activists immediately after religious services. On September 8, for instance, members of the Damas de Blanco were arrested after attending mass in Santiago to celebrate the day of Cuba’s patron saint.

Turkmenistan: The government’s respect for religious freedom remained low, despite provisions for religious freedom in the constitution and in some laws and policies. Discriminatory government practices in the treatment of some registered and unregistered groups continued. Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities. Several religious groups remained unable to register and the government restricted even registered groups’ ability to obtain places to worship and to print, distribute, or import religious materials. Although there were fewer reports of raids and arbitrary detentions involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government continued to arrest, charge, and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses who were conscientious objectors to military service.

 

Uzbekistan* requires religious groups to register and prohibits some activities, such as proselytizing, as well as publishing, importing, and distributing religious materials without a license. Most minority religious groups had difficulty meeting the government’s strict registration requirements. In some cases, members faced heavy fines and even jail terms for violations of the state’s religion laws. The government restricted religious activities that it proclaimed to be in conflict with national security and generally dealt harshly with Muslims who practice and discuss Islam outside of government-sanctioned mosques. Uzbek law prohibits religious groups from forming political parties and social movements, as well as the private teaching of religious principles.

Conclusion

Even as this report documents abuses of religious freedom, the events of 2011 show that change is possible and suggests that countries whose constitution, laws, policies, and practices protect religious freedom and human rights will be the most vibrant and stable. This report documents places where intolerance does not have the last word. Turkey issued a decree facilitating the return of property confiscated from religious community foundations in the past. In Ukraine,the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, which represents 95 percent of religious congregations in the country, discussed with the government legal protections for religious freedom, visas for foreign religious workers, and procedures for religious organizations to obtain legal status in Ukraine. In France, members of a Jewish – Muslim friendship association traveled around the country to educate youth about Islam and Judaism.

 

The United States was active around the world promoting religious freedom, and challenging threats to such freedom. For example, senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, raised deep U.S. concerns about increased religious violence and discrimination against Copts with senior Egyptianofficials, including concerns about the government’s failure to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence. The United States also sponsored programs in Egypt to promote religious tolerance and freedom.

President Obama said at a celebration of Coptic Christmas in January 2012, “as history repeatedly reminds us, freedom of religion, the protection of people of all faiths, and the ability to worship as you choose are critical to a peaceful, inclusive, and thriving society.” These reports document where people live, think, pray, and speak freely and where, in contrast, governments limit those freedoms, abusing the rights of their people, violating international agreements, and diminishing the reputations of their own countries.

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