The biggest barrier to religious freedom is the use of religion to justify violence, according to a U.S. State Department official on international religious freedom.
David Saperstein is the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. He is the first non-Christian to hold the position.
In the past 18 months, there has been an increase of terrorist acts from those who “falsely” interpret religion to justify their violence. The ambassador made the statement as the State Department released its yearly report on international religious freedom.
The report deals with the treatment of religious groups in countries around the world. Congress required the report in a 1998 law, which made religious freedom an important concern for American foreign policy.
Non-state militant groups named in the report include the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabab in Somalia. Other groups include Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Lashkar I Jhangvi in Pakistan.
The State Department placed attention on the Islamic State group for abuses in Iraq and Syria. It noted a case in which an extremist ripped a three-year-old girl from the arms of her Christian mother and forced the woman on to a bus threatening her with death if she did not obey his orders. The report said the mother was “never to know what became of her daughter.”
Another issue of concern was the repressive use of blasphemy laws. These laws target minorities whose practices may offend the majority. Mr. Saperstein said, “such laws are inconsistent with international human rights and fundamental freedoms.” He said the U.S. would continue to call for their repeal.
Mr. Saperstein noted a third point of concern. He said some governments have used measures to fight terrorism or extremism to repress religious groups or place restrictions on religious activities.
He said Russia has used, “vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws” to justify raids on homes and religious places and the seizure or banning of religious material.
Speaking of China, Mr. Saperstein credited the country with some reforms. During a recent visit, he saw faith-based groups operating homeless shelters, soup kitchens and orphanages. But issues of concern remained.
“The worsening situation of the Tibetan Buddhist community and the Uighur Muslim community is clearly a source of concern. The ongoing oppression of non-traditional groups like the Falun Gong remains a source of concern, and the very ubiquitous effort at control under the registration process and the approval process that every church or mosque or temple has to get in order to function from the government, you know, is a continuing problem.”
Mr. Saperstein said there is a need to give a voice to people who are religiously oppressed. He added, however, that religion in China was spreading.
Is the attention always good?
Katrina Lantos Swett chairs the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. The commission writes its own yearly report of countries.
She said, “There’s a lot of evidence out there, from many credible sources, that societies that do a good job protecting this fundamental human right … also tend to be more peaceful. They tend to be more economically prosperous.”
Some experts see problems in some religious freedom efforts. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University has said expanding the importance of religious identity can draw the attention of extremists.
She said, “When they’re singled out for protection on the basis of religion, that actually can make things more difficult for them paradoxically.” Policies toward Christians in Pakistan and Muslims in Myanmar are examples of this, she said.
She said the civil war in Syria has been turned into a religious conflict partly by Western groups and by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. She said it has used the threat of sectarian anarchy to justify its own rule.
Critics of calls for greater religious freedom say they only reflect Western values. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd agrees there is a double standard.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from interfering in the religious practices of citizens. But the 1993 Freedom of Religion Act recently presented a problem. The law was meant to be an effort to increase religious freedom in the United States and has been adopted by many states.
But, some businesses have used the law to deny services to gay and lesbian marriage ceremonies. This resulted in state efforts to make changes to the law.
David Saperstein says the international religious freedom report remains important as a source of hope to religious communities around the world.
“Before the report, it was the overlooked piece of the busy lives of staff people at embassies,” Mr. Saperstein said. “This forced them to engage seriously. So as I traveled the world in these last 15 years, time and again I heard, ‘What a difference that this structure made.'”
I’m Mario Ritter.
Mario Ritter adapted this story from reports by Jerome Socolovsky, Pam Dockins and Ken Bredemaeier. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
blasphemy – n. something said or done that is disrespectful to God or to something holy
vaguely – adj. in a way that is not clearly stated or expressed
ubiquitous – adj. seeming to be everywhere
function – v. to work or operate
sectarian – adj. relating to religious or political sects or groups and the difference between them
anarchy – n. a state of confusion or lawlessness
adopt – v. to accept or approve in a formal way