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In world fields, religious liberty often a struggle

Imprisonment, death, police raids not uncommon, panel says

In world fields, religious liberty often a struggle

From left, Vladimir Ryahovsky of the Slavic Center for Law & Justice; Kevin L. Kimball of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Rev. Susan L. Taylor of the Church of Scientology; and Tiffany Barrans, of the American Center for Law and Justice discuss the state of religious liberty worldwide during the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom April 25. [photo: Ansel Oliver]

It's one thing to lose a job because of your religious beliefs. It's quite another to be deprived of your freedom -- or even your life.

Those are perhaps the most extreme challenges facing believers of many different faiths around the world today, and the situation can sometimes change without warning or even explanation, attendees at the 7th World Congress of the International Religious Liberty Association heard this week during a panel discussion in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) in Washington, D.C., recalled the torture and murder of Pakistani Christian businessman Rasheed Masih in 2010. Four Muslim competitors lured Masih to a rural farmhouse, ostensibly to discuss the potato business. Instead, they tried to force Masih to convert to Islam, and, it was alleged, beat him to death when Masih refused.

ACLJ's European affiliate got involved and, working with attorneys in Pakistan, helped secure convictions of three of the alleged killers, each of whom received a life sentence.

The center is also very active on behalf of Iranian Christian Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, arrested in 2009 on charges of "apostasy" from Islam, a faith Nadarkhani never practiced. He was sentenced to death in 2010, but massive international pressure has delayed the execution so far.

Barrans said of the ACLJ's work, "Our attempt is to use the judicial system ... and create a precedent, so people know they cannot kill, cannot beat and cannot hurt the religious minority with impunity," she said.

In both Russia and Kazakstan, the roughly 60-year-old Church of Scientology is facing persecution and discrimination, said the Rev. Susan L. Taylor, president of the Founding Church of Scientology in Washington, D.C.

"Last December, police entered our church in Moscow full force, burst into homes of staff members, and also brought a man from a TV station to film the raid," Taylor said. "The idea is to close down various churches of Scientology," she added.

"In Kazakstan, we're also experiencing persecution. Members have had to go underground," Taylor said. "In Almaty, the Ahmadi Muslims were shut down all over Kazakstan, and a local news report asked, 'Is the Methodist Church next?'"

Scientologists, Taylor explained, "have a policy in our church that we abide by the rules of the land. Working in that framework, we fight for our rights, we fight to exist."

Attorney Kevin Kimball, legal counsel for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, presented his personal views on the subject, saying he was "a longtime student of religious liberty" issues.

"We protect and reverence the right of liberty, the privilege of worshipping almighty God," Kimball noted after quoting statements from several LDS leaders including founder Joseph Smith, Jr. Societies, he said, "need to respect other's rights to practice their own religions."

Such respect is growing in the Dominican Republic, Kimball said. In 2011, the national government enacted a law granting civil (legal) recognition to marriages performed by churches other than the Roman Catholic Church. He said this was an important step for Dominican churches and their members.

Now, leaders of evangelical, Seventh-day Adventist, LDS and other churches are meeting informally to advance other laws aimed at gaining rights and privileges in Dominican society, he noted.

"It's our hope that we will continue to build on the momentum we have here, [during this] period of time when our host country affords a measure of religious freedom," Kimball said. The goal, he added, "is not to diminish rights the Catholic Church has, but to extend those rights to other religions."

For Vladimir Ryahovsky of the Slavic Center for Law & Justice (SCLJ) in Moscow, the challenges are basic. "I represent a country where the institution of religious freedom is still in the process of developing," he said.

While there was considerable religious freedom after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, much of it was later withdrawn. Evangelical Christian movement The Salvation Army was under fire from Russian authorities because of the word "Army" in their name and the fact that the movement's international leader carries the rank of "General." Ryahovsky's group helped in an eight-year legal battle to gain recognition for The Salvation Army in the country.

The SCLJ focuses much of its activity on educating lawyers, judges and government officials on the details of religious freedom. "We organize training seminars for religious organizations as well as for governmental officials. [University] chairs of church/state relations have been established; and we publish an academic journal on 'Religion & Law' to which many people subscribe," Ryahovsky said.