The biggest barrier to religious freedom is the use of religion to justify violence, according to a U.S. State Department official on international religious freedom.
David Saperstein is the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. He is the first non-Christian to hold the position.
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In the past 18 months, there has been an increase of terrorist acts from those who “falsely” interpret religion to justify their violence. The ambassador made the statement as the State Department released its yearly report on international religious freedom.
The report deals with the treatment of religious groups in countries around the world. Congress required the report in a 1998 law, which made religious freedom an important concern for American foreign policy.
Non-state militant groups named in the report include the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and al Shabab in Somalia. Other groups include Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Lashkar I Jhangvi in Pakistan.
The State Department placed attention on the Islamic State group for abuses in Iraq and Syria. It noted a case in which an extremist ripped a three-year-old girl from the arms of her Christian mother and forced the woman on to a bus threatening her with death if she did not obey his orders. The report said the mother was “never to know what became of her daughter.”
The State Department placed attention on the Islamic State group for abuses in Iraq and Syria. It noted acase in which an extremist ripped a three-year-old girlfrom the arms of her Christian mother and forced thewoman on to a bus threatening her with death if she did not obey his orders. The report said the mother was “never to know what became of her daughter.”
Another issue of concern was the repressive use of blasphemy laws. Theselaws target minorities whose practices may offend the majority. Mr.Saperstein said, “such laws are inconsistent with international human rightsand fundamental freedoms.” He said the U.S. would continue to call for theirrepeal.
Mr. Saperstein noted a third point of concern. He said some governmentshave used measures to fight terrorism or extremism to repress religiousgroups or place restrictions on religious activities.
He said Russia has used, “vaguely formulated anti-extremism laws” to justifyraids on homes and religious places and the seizure or banning of religiousmaterial.
Speaking of China, Mr. Saperstein credited the country with some reforms.During a recent visit, he saw faith-based groups operating homeless shelters, soup kitchens and orphanages. But issues of concern remained.
“The worsening situation of the Tibetan Buddhist community and the UighurMuslim community is clearly a source of concern. The ongoing oppression ofnon-traditional groups like the Falun Gong remains a source of concern, and the very ubiquitous effort at control under the registration process and theapproval process that every church or mosque or temple has to get in order tofunction from the government, you know, is a continuing problem.”
Mr. Saperstein said there is a need to give a voice to people who arereligiously oppressed. He added, however, that religion in China was spreading.
Is the attention always good?
Katrina Lantos Swett chairs the U.S. Commission for International ReligiousFreedom. The commission writes its own yearly report of countries.
She said, “There’s a lot of evidence out there, from many credible sources, that societies that do a good job protecting this fundamental human right …also tend to be more peaceful. They tend to be more economicallyprosperous.”
Some experts see problems in some religious freedom efforts. ElizabethShakman Hurd of Northwestern University has said expanding theimportance of religious identity can draw the attention of extremists.
She said, “When they’re singled out for protection on the basis of religion, thatactually can make things more difficult for them paradoxically.” Policiestoward Christians in Pakistan and Muslims in Myanmar are examples of this, she said.
She said the civil war in Syria has been turned into a religious conflict partlyby Western groups and by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. She saidit has used the threat of sectarian anarchy to justify its own rule.
Critics of calls for greater religious freedom say they only reflect Westernvalues. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd agrees there is a double standard.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from interfering in the religiouspractices of citizens. But the 1993 Freedom of Religion Act recently presenteda problem. The law was meant to be an effort to increase religious freedom in the United States and has been adopted by many states.
But, some businesses have used the law to deny services to gay and lesbianmarriage ceremonies. This resulted in state efforts to make changes to thelaw.
David Saperstein says the international religious freedom report remains important as a source of hope to religious communities around the world.
“Before the report, it was the overlooked piece of the busy lives of staff peopleat embassies, ” Mr. Saperstein said. “This forced them to engage seriously. Soas I traveled the world in these last 15 years, time and again I heard, ‘What a difference that this structure made.’”
I’m Mario Ritter.
Mario Ritter adapted this story from reports by Jerome Socolovsky, PamDockins and Ken Bredemaeier. Hai Do was the editor.