World Backsliding on Religious Freedom
World Backsliding on Religious Freedom

Pakistani Sunni Muslim activists from Ahle Sunnat Wal-Jmmat
Pakistani Sunni Muslim activists from Ahle Sunnat Wal-Jmmat shout slogans during a protest against bomb attack outside the Sunni Muslim seminary in Karachi on June 8. (Asif Hassan/AFP/GettyImages)

WASHINGTON—At a time when at least some countries are loosening up on political expression, the world is sliding backward on religious freedom, says U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Speaking on the release of the United States “International Religious Freedom Report” for 2011 on July 30, Clinton said now more than ever, it was urgent to highlight religious freedom.

“When we consider the global picture and ask whether religious freedom is expanding or shrinking the answer is sobering,” she said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in D.C. “More than a billion people live under governments that systematically suppress religious freedom.”

The annual report highlights violations against religious practices and minority religious groups, identifies the perpetrators, and documents the methods used to restrict religious expression or belief.

China was criticized for its continued heavy restrictions on unregistered Christian churches, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners.

“The self-immolation of over 40 Tibetans to protest Chinese policies continues to demonstrate their desperation,” said Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, at a State Department press briefing ahead of Clinton’s speech.

For the second year running, China was on an inauspicious list of eight countries, that also includes North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, designated as countries of particular concern (CPC) for “chronic” and “systematic” abuse of religious freedom.

North Korea is still a country “where genuine religious freedom does not exist, and Iran, where religious freedom deteriorated from an already horrible situation,” said Johnson Cook.

Key Trends

This year the report identifies key trends in religious freedom abuse, some evident in authoritarian governments, and others in countries transitioning to democracy.

In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Burma, where regimes had fallen or moved to less restrictive practices, people were taking the first steps in newfound freedoms. The transition path, however, is fraught with its own dangers, particularly for minorities.

Violence against Coptic Christians had increased in Egypt, for example, as had incidents against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority in Burma, who remain severely ostracized.

The expanded use and abuse of blasphemy laws to further restrict religious liberty and expression was also cited as a growing trend. In Saudi Arabia, blasphemy against the Wahabi interpretation of Sunni Islam is punishable by death; while in Indonesia, the penalty is imprisonment.

In Pakistan, anyone blaspheming or criticizing blaspheming laws is vulnerable to assassination by extremists.

A rise in anti-Semitism was identified as a disturbing trend. The report cites Venezuela for anti-Semitic statements in official media and Iran for unrestrained Holocaust denial. In Europe, Ukraine and France saw incidents of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues being desecrated, and Hungary saw the rise of an anti-Semitic political party.

Some governments were also cited for targeting minorities as “violent extremists,” the report citing Bahrain, Russia, Iraq, and Nigeria for the trend.

“Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities,” the report said.

In highlighting the importance of religious freedom, Johnson Cook described it as the “canary in the coalmine.”

Religious freedom was “essential for a stable, peaceful, and thriving society,” she said adding, “It goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, freedom of speech and assembly, and when religious freedom is restricted, all these rights are at risk.”

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