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Unhappy New Year for religious liberty

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Charles C. Haynes
January 2, 2010

Good riddance to the aughts, naughts or ohs. By whatever name, the first decade of the 21st century has been devastating for religious liberty in much of the world.


The statistics are numbing. According to a study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people now live in countries with high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.


The study measures limits on religious freedom caused by government policy, laws and actions as well as restrictions imposed by private individuals, organizations and social groups. Some countries, China and Vietnam for example, have high government restrictions but moderate or low hostile acts by private individuals and groups. Other countries, such as Nigeria, are high in social hostilities but moderate in government restrictions.


The worst offenders are countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, with high levels of governmental and societal limits on religious liberty. (The full report is available at www.pewforum.org.)


Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other repressive regimes are leading an effort to diminish freedom for the 30 percent of humanity still free.


On Dec. 18, the U.N. General Assembly adopted yet another resolution condemning “defamation of religions” and calling for what amounts to a global blasphemy law. The nonbinding resolution has passed the General Assembly every year since 2005, though support for the measure has declined somewhat in recent years.


In this brave new world, the U.N. resolution redefines religious liberty to mean state censorship of individual conscience and expression. The very countries that punish citizens for expressing their religious views are calling on all nations to censor speech critical of (their) religion.


“Instead of addressing the very real problems of religious persecution and discrimination around the world,” said Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “these resolutions exacerbate them. In countries that have blasphemy laws, like Pakistan, these laws result in gross abuses, particularly against religious minorities and dissenters.”


While the United Nations fiddles with the meaning of religious liberty, the world burns with religious conflict. The Pew report found public tensions between religious groups in 87 percent of 198 countries in the period studied (mid-2006 through mid-2008). In 126 countries, these hostilities involved physical violence. And in 17 countries, religion-related terrorism caused casualties.


What the world needs in the new year are fewer U.N. resolutions defaming human rights and more U.N. resolve to defend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.


According to Article 18, “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.”


In what Time magazine has dubbed the “decade from hell,” the people of the world have suffered everything from terrorist attacks to economic collapse. But few worldwide trends will have more long-lasting, catastrophic consequences than the continuing erosion of religious liberty and the corresponding rise in religious conflict in countries across the globe. With 70 percent of the world denied freedom of conscience, the challenge of advancing religious liberty appears overwhelming. But despite the odds, a new year always brings new hope.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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