Protecting faith and religious freedom

As most Christians around the globe wrap up one of their faith’s biggest holidays, it seems like an apt time to reflect on the place and protection of religion in the world today. Inevitably at Christmas time, stories of persecuted Christians make the rounds of Western newspapers and news agencies and in some places, that persecution is real. One need only to look at the killing of 58 Iraqi Christians at a Catholic church in Baghdad this past October to see that. But as Christians in the non-Christian world honor the birth of the founder of their faith, whether openly or discreetly, it is important to note that the lack of religious freedom is something that touches adherents of all faiths throughout the world.

Nothing illustrates this more than the annual International Religious Freedom Report compiled by the State Department and released last month. In it, every country in the world* is reviewed for “challenges to religious freedom” with a particular emphasis on tolerance of minority faiths. Reviewing the full report would take hours, but a quick perusal demonstrates the ongoing challenge to religious freedom as well as the frequent political connections behind religious discrimination.

As to be expected, some states have become regular offenders of religious tolerance with no sign that they will change their ways. The report highlights the crackdowns by the Chinese government against Uigher Muslims and Tibetan monks following outbreaks of political tensions in those regions, as well as the expected intolerance of groups like Falun Gong. Pakistan saw a rise in religious intolerance, geared towards several minority religious groups including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya Muslims. Similarly, several African nations saw an increase in religious tensions spurred on by local officials. The case of Nigeria, which made headlines several times in the past year for communal violence between Muslims and Christians, is an example of this trend where the report remarks that the national government generally respected religious freedom but noted numerous instances where local officials stoked communal violence on religious lines and freely discriminated against practitioners of minority faiths. Unfortunately, the Christmas attacks on Christian churches in Jos state would seem to highlight just this phenomenon.

In Europe, the report finds that while governments largely respected religious freedom, there was a notable increase in “societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation” for almost every country.  The rise of Islamaphobia was evident in the report, but there were also numerous incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the continent, perhaps reminding us all that old prejudices can be hard to fully eradicate.

However what the report makes clear is that governments can only do so much to protect religious freedom; often social abuses of religious freedom are far harder to eradicate, prevent or control. The Swiss minaret ban from last year poses an excellent example of this, as the ban came from a popular referendum not supported by the state who is now working on overturning it. Such incidents highlight the need for religious tolerance campaigns to begin at the grassroots level as the issue cannot remain only within the purview of formal law. As intolerance is a trend that effects followers of all faiths (or those who choose to not follow any) in all parts of the world, it is appropriate to remember that we all have a role to play in preserving and protecting freedom of the religion, especially for those who do not enjoy strength of numbers within their communities.

*The US is the only country not included in the report as challenges to religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities within the US is overseen by the 

Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs