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In much of the world, the state of religious freedom is far from ‘alive and well’

Reports are only a first step in protecting a fundamental human right

Dwayne Leslie

The U.S. Department of State this week released its annual report on international religious freedom, including an assessment of what governments around the world are doing to protect the rights of their citizens to freely worship.

The vast majority of Americans could tell you that religious freedom is a basic right here in the U.S., but they would likely be hard-pressed to say whether this same right does – or at least is supposed to – exist around the world.  And yet, as noted in yesterday’s report, “all states are committed to freedom of thought, conscience and belief in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has been the touchstone and the global standard for the protection of human rights around the world since 1948.”

Frankly, that’s what makes yesterday’s report all the more troubling.

This week, the Seventh-day Adventist church officially commemorated its 150th anniversary. As a church that often found itself in the religious minority, Adventists recognized early on that it was vital to advocate for protection of the fundamental right of the world’s citizens to worship – or not – according to their conscience. Not just for the church itself and its own members, but also for people with whom the church had little else in common. That’s because once religious minorities are silenced, it becomes much easier to strip away other rights.

That, unfortunately, is exactly what we’re seeing in many parts of the world. In releasing the 2012 report earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “The report chronicles discrimination and violence in countries ranging from established democracies to entrenched dictatorships. It documents that governments around the globe continue to detain, imprison, torture, and even kill people for their religious beliefs. In too many places, governments are also failing to protect minorities from social discrimination and violence. The report identifies global problems of discrimination and violence against religious groups, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.”

This annual report is a product of the International Religious Freedom Act passed 15 years ago by the U.S. Congress. Many in my line of work eagerly anticipate the findings each year as a means of assessing where progress is being made but, even more importantly, where rights are being trampled. 

As in previous years, the 2012 report does an excellent job of identifying many of the “hot spots” around the world and diagnosing the most pressing short- and longer-term problems, noting that, “The immediate challenge is to protect members of religious minorities. The ongoing challenge is to address the root causes that lead to limits on religious freedom.”

This report also bears witness to the fact that most of the trends we see continue to be negative – there are many more places around the world where religious freedoms are being taken away and where religious minorities actively are being oppressed, than there are places where freedoms are being restored.

These trends include:

• Government Restrictions and Abuses (described by the report as “laws and policies that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, tell others about their religious beliefs and practices, or reject religion altogether remain pervasive.”

• Blasphemy, Apostasy and Conversion (again, as noted in the report, “such laws often violate freedoms of religion and expression and often are applied in a discriminatory manner.”)

• A Continued Rise in Anti-Semitism

• Societal Violence and Intolerance

• The Problem of Impunity (the ability of government officials in many countries to commit abuses with no fear of being held accountable)

There are a tremendous number of valuable details in this week’s report and I would encourage anyone with interest in this topic to at least read the executive summary.

Shining a spotlight, as this report and others like it do, is an important step. But reports are only one step in the broader struggle to fight ongoing encroachment by governments and other entities around the world on the fundamental human right of the world’s people to worship according to their conscience.

—Dwayne Leslie is an attorney as serves as director of Legislative Affairs at the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters.

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