350th anniversary of Rhode Island's "lively experiment" in religious freedom
International Religious Freedom Report for 2011, from the Executive Summary (Full Executive Summary here)
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
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.
The interim government of Egypt began to take measures toward greater inclusiveness, such as passing an anti-discrimination law; arresting and prosecuting alleged instigators of sectarian rioting; and allowing dozens of churches previously closed to reopen. Nevertheless, sectarian tensions and violence increased during the year, along with an overall increase in violence and criminality. This report documents both the Egyptian government’s failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks. For example, on October 9, 2011, the Egyptian security forces attacked demonstrators in front of the Egyptian radio and television building in the Maspiro area of Cairo. Twenty-five people were killed and 350 injured, most of whom were Coptic Christians. To date, government officials have not been held accountable for their actions, and there were indications in early 2012 of mounting Coptic emigration.
Following the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi in October 2011, the new government in Libya chose not to enforce some old laws that restricted religious freedom, ceased actively regulating all aspects of religious life, and enshrined the free practice of religion in an interim constitution, which also outlawed discrimination based on religion or sect. Early in 2012, the Libyan Supreme Court overturned a law that criminalized insults against Islam, the state, and religious symbols. Qadhafi-era laws prohibiting certain affronts to Islam, however, remained on the books even though there were no attempts to enforce them.
Transitions were not limited to the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. In Burma, a Country of Particular Concern, the government took steps toward overcoming a longstanding legacy of intense religious oppression. The government eased some restrictions on church construction and generally permitted adherents of religious groups registered with the government to worship as they chose. However, the government continued to impose restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently limited religious freedom. It also continued to monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events. Some of the Buddhist monks arrested in 2007 were released during the year and have not faced harassment since their release, but others were released with conditions attached or remained in prison serving long sentences. The government also refused to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on their movement and marriage.
Countries in Europe are becoming more ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse. These demographic changes are sometimes accompanied by growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered “the other.” The report documents a rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others. In a separate context, Hungary’s parliament passed a law that regulates registration of religious organizations and requires a political vote in parliament to secure recognition. The law went into effect on January 1, 2012, reducing the number of recognized religious groups from over 300 to fewer than 32.
Effects of conflict on religious freedom
In 2011, governments responded to conflict and to groups they considered to be “violent extremists” in ways that restricted religious freedom and contributed to societal intolerance in countries as diverse as Bahrain, Russia, Iraq, and Nigeria. Authorities often failed to distinguish between peaceful religious practice and criminal or terrorist activities.
In Bahrain, the Sunni minority enjoyed favored status. During the state of emergency from March 15 to June 1, the government arrested and detained protestors, the vast majority of whom were members of the Shia community. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry received reports that 53 religious structures were demolished, largely during the ongoing unrest. The Commission recommended that the government rebuild some of the demolished structures.
In Russia, violent extremism in the North Caucasus region led to negative popular attitudes in many other regions toward traditionally Muslim ethnic groups. The government continued to use the “Law on Combating Extremist Activity” to justify raids on religious organizations, detain and prosecute their members, and restrict the freedom to worship of minority group members, particularly targeting Muslim followers of Turkish theologian Said Nursi’s works, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Falun Gong, and Scientologists. Additionally, a number of small radical-nationalist newspapers printed anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and xenophobic articles that were readily available throughout the country. Russia labeled 19 Muslim groups as terrorist organizations and banned them. Such bans made it easier for officials to detain some individual Muslims arbitrarily for alleged connections to these groups.
In Iraq, attacks by violent extremist groups and sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia in some parts of the country had a negative impact on the ability of all citizens to practice their religion. A combination of sectarian hiring practices, corruption, targeted attacks, and the uneven application of the law contributed to the departure of significant numbers of non-Muslims from the country, including Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeaens. Notably, and in response to these challenges, the government reinforced its commitment to religious freedom by increasing security at places of worship and forming investigative committees to follow up on violent incidents.
In Nigeria, attacks by elements of the violent extremist sect Boko Haram claimed the lives of both Christians and Muslims. The government did not effectively quell rising hostility or investigate and prosecute those responsible for violence. There also were reports of abuses of religious freedom by certain state governments and local political actors who stoked communal and sectarian violence with impunity.
Expanded use and abuse of blasphemy laws
In 2011, governments increasingly used blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion laws to restrict religious liberty, constrain the rights of religious minorities, and limit freedom of expression. In Pakistan, individuals accused of blasphemy or who publicly criticized the blasphemy laws and called for their reform continued to be killed, including Governor Punjab Salman Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet. Aasia Bibi, a Christian, remained in prison, awaiting an appeal of her 2010 death sentence, the first such sentence for blasphemy handed down against a woman. The verdict in the case touched off a debate within the country about the blasphemy laws, with extremists calling for her execution and more moderate voices calling for her pardon or an appeal of the guilty verdict.
In Saudi Arabia, blasphemy against the Wahabi interpretation of Sunni Islam is punishable by death, but the more common penalty is a long prison sentence. In mid-November 2011, Mansor Almaribe, an Australian Shia of Iraqi descent, was arrested and convicted in the country of blasphemy and for “insulting the companions of the Prophet.” He was sentenced to 500 lashes and a year in prison. His sentence was reduced to 75 lashes and no jail time. Almaribe was allowed to return to Australia after he received the lashes.
Indonesia detained and imprisoned individuals under its blasphemy law. For example, Antonius Richmond Bawengan, a Christian, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy on February 8 for distributing books deemed “offensive to Islam.” Discrimination and violence against Ahmadis also continued: Ahmadis who violate a government-imposed ban on proselytizing can be imprisoned for blasphemy; more than 26 regional governments enacted additional restrictions on the group; and the government failed to stop the murder of three and beating of five Ahmadis in Cikeusik, Banten province by a mob of 1,500 individuals. Video footage of the attack posted to the Internet shows members of the mob beating victims to death while police officers failed to intervene.
A rising tide of anti-Semitism
This report also documents a global increase in anti-Semitism, manifested in Holocaust denial, glorification, and relativism; conflating opposition to certain policies of Israel with blatant anti-Semitism; growing nationalistic movements that target “the other;” and traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as conspiracy theories, acts of desecration and assault, “blood libel,” and cartoons demonizing Jews. In Venezuela, the official media published numerous anti-Semitic statements. In Egypt, anti-Israel sentiment in the media was widespread and sometimes included anti-Semitic rhetoric and Holocaust denial or glorification. Web sites promoting Holocaust denial operated with Iran‘s consent. In France, the report documents desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries. Hungary saw the rise in popularity of an openly anti-Semitic party, the Jobbik party. Jewish property was defaced in Ukraine, including a synagogue and several Holocaust monuments. In both Ukraine and the Netherlands, soccer matches were marred by anti-Semitic slogans.
Chronic violators of religious freedom
A range of countries remained chronic and systemic violators of religious freedom. This report documents the ongoing state of religious repression in China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and other countries with authoritarian governments. In Iran, Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani remained jailed and faced possible execution simply for practicing his faith. The Iranian government also continued to imprison seven leaders of the Baha’i community: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Behrouz Tavakkoli, Saeid Rezaie, Vahid Tizfahm, and Mahvash Sabet. Like other freedoms, religious freedom simply does not exist in North Korea.