Global Religious Freedom in 2013
30 Jul 2014
In 2013 the world witnessed the largest displacement of members of religious communities in recent memory, according to the annual International Religious Freedom Report, released by the U.S. Department of State.
This is the 16th edition of the International Religious Freedom Report, which is presented to Congress annually, describing the status of religious freedom in every country. The report covers government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. The U.S. Department of State submits the reports in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The report notes that in almost every part of the world, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others representing a range of faiths have been forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.
"75 percent of the world's population lives in countries that don't respect religious freedoms."
At the launch of the report on 28 July 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: "...when 75 percent of the world's population still lives in countries that don't respect religious freedoms...we have a long journey ahead of us. We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain, or torture people based on a religious belief."
The report also describes that in conflict zones, mass displacement has become all too common, with individuals around the world subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all.
And, despite some glimpses of progress, the report notes there is much work to be done. President Obama recently noted that "around the world freedom of religion is under threat."
The work of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation with the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs is mentioned in the Kosovo country report:
"The government undertook numerous interfaith initiatives to promote religious tolerance and respect between religious communities, beginning with the formation of Interfaith Kosovo, a web portal supported by the foreign ministry andinternational partners, including the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The site promoted increased dialogue among religious communities, civil society, and the public. As part of that initiative, the government organised the "Interfaith Conference – Peje/Pec," which brought together religious leaders from the country's five primary religious groups and international interfaith participants."
Governments that engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom are designated by the U.S. Secretary of State (under authority delegated by the President) as "Countries of Particular Concern (CPC)". This year those countries are:
- Myanmar (Burma)
- North Korea
- Saudi Arabia
*Turkmenistan has been designated a CPC for the first time this year.
Along with other information available; in making the decision to designate a particular country as a CPC, the Secretary of State also considers the recommendations of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. In their latest annual report, published in April 2014, the USCIRF recommended that the Secretary of State re-designate these eight countries as CPCs:
Myanmar (Burma), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.
It also found that a further eight countries met the CPC standard and should be so designated. These were:
Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.
All of the eight country recommendations from the USCIRF report appear in the latest CPC list above. Turkmenistan is also designated a CPC, also recommended by the USCIRF.
- Governments from all regions of the world subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws;
- In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm;
- The actions of violent extremist groups led some governments to invoke draconian anti-extremism laws and impose restrictions that increasingly infringed on the religious freedoms of members of religious minorities;
- The failure of many governments to combat religiously motivated discrimination creates an environment that emboldens violent and discriminatory actions by some in the society;
- Members of minority religious communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination, and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year.
- Bahrain: Bahrain continued to experience political/sectarian tensions. Sunni Muslims enjoyed favoured status, while Shia Muslims suffered discrimination in employment and government services, and there were reports of arbitrary arrest and excessive use of force;
- Bangladesh: In Bangladesh, there were a large number of arson attacks and looting of minority religious sites and private homes across the country, especially against the Hindu community;
- Central African Republic: In the Central African Republic, widespread lawlessness and an upsurge in sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims reportedly resulted in at least 700 deaths in Bangui in December alone and the displacement of more than one million people throughout the country during the year;
- China: China prosecuted family members of self-immolators, imprisoned and tortured Falun Gong practitioners, continued its harassment of members of house churches and unregistered Catholic bishops and priests, and sought the forcible return of ethnic Uighurs who were seeking asylum overseas;
- Egypt: Both Shia Muslims and Christians faced violent and deadly attacks in Egypt;
- Eritrea: Members of unregistered religious groups were continuously intimidated in Eritrea, where 1,200 to 3,000 people were imprisoned because of their religious beliefs;
- Europe: Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict. The European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism among Jews in eight member states (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom), released in November, found that in some countries as many as 48 percent of the local Jewish population had considered emigrating because of anti-Semitism;
- India: Clashes in the Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh between Hindu and Muslim communities between late August and mid-September led to the deaths of 65 persons, 68 persons injured, and an estimated 40,000-50,000 displaced;
- Indonesia: In Indonesia, the government sometimes did not adequately prosecute instances of violence, abuse, and discrimination against individuals based on their religious belief, especially when minority Shia or Ahmadiyya Muslims were victimised;
- Iran: In Iran, officials threatened, detained and harassed members of almost all non-Shia religious groups;
- Iraq: In Iraq, there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, although to a lesser extent in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) than in other areas of the country. A combination of sectarian hiring practices, corruption, targeted attacks, and the uneven application of the law had a detrimental economic effect on minority non-Muslim communities, and contributed to the departure of non-Muslims from the country;
- Myanmar (Burma): Anti-Muslim violence in Meikhtila, Myanmar, led to up to 100 deaths and an estimated 12,000 displaced residents from the area in early 2013. This event showed that mob violence against Muslims was no longer confined to western Rakhine State, where over 140,000 persons have also been displaced since 2012. Although the government's overall human rights record continued to improve, organised anti-Muslim hate speech, harassment, and discrimination against Muslims continued, exploited by those seeking to divide and pit Buddhist and Muslim communities against one another, often for political gain;
- Nigeria: In Nigeria, casualties and human rights abuses associated with Boko Haram attacks and the government's response escalated. Boko Haram killed more than 1,000 people during the year. The federal government was ineffective in preventing or quelling the violence, only occasionally investigated, prosecuted, or punished those responsible for abuses related to religious freedom, and sometimes responded to violence with heavy-handed tactics, which were associated with both human rights abuses and civilian casualties. Over 10,000 people have fled to neighboring countries as refugees, fearing both Boko Haram and sometimes the military;
- North Korea: North Korea again stood out for its absolute prohibition of religious organisations and harsh punishments for any unauthorised religious activities;
- Pakistan: Militants in Pakistan killed more than 400 Shia Muslims in sectarian attacks throughout the year and more than 80 Christians in a single church bombing; the government arrested and jailed a number of those responsible for sectarian attacks, but it generally failed to prevent attacks;
- Russia: In Russia, the government used a new law against "extremism" and amendments to existing laws to further restrict the activities of members of minority religious groups, including making it illegal for foreigners to participate in religious organisations. The government continued to grant the Russian Orthodox Church a privileged position, but generally allowed other established Judeo-Christian groups to practice their beliefs freely;
- Saudi Arabia: Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia continued to face discrimination and prejudice, as were others who did not adhere to the government's interpretation of Islam;
- Sri Lanka: In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to promote its anti-Muslim campaign, which was linked to violent activities during the year;
- Sudan: In Sudan, the government prohibited conversion from Islam to another religion, denied permits for churches, closed or demolished churches built without permits, and failed to provide legal remedies for some instances of religious discrimination;
- Syria: In Syria, as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is diminishing, with hundreds of thousands fleeing the country to escape the ongoing violence perpetrated by the government and extremist groups alike; In the city of Homs the number of Christians dwindled to as few as 1,000 from approximately 160,000 prior to the conflict;
- Tajikistan: Tajikistan the only country in the world in which the law prohibits persons under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. Muslim women are also effectively barred from attending mosques under a religious edict enforced by the government;
- Turkmenistan: In Turkmenistan, there were reports of beatings and torture of persons detained for religious reasons, including Jehovah's Witnesses, whose beliefs prevented them from complying with compulsory military service;
- Uzbekistan: In Uzbekistan, the government continued to imprison individuals on charges of "extremism," raid religious and social gatherings of unregistered and registered religious organisations, confiscate and destroy religious literature, and discourage minors from practicing their faith. NGOs estimate that approximately 10,000 to 12,000 people reportedly remain imprisoned on vague charges of religious extremism due to their religious beliefs or practice;
Acts of Interfaith Solidarity
- Amidst the religious strife, there have also been acts of interfaith solidarity;
- Following the deadly Peshawar church bombing in Pakistan resilient Muslim community members formed human chains around churches during services in a show of solidarity and to stand up against senseless violence;
- In Egypt, Muslim men stood in front of a Catholic church to protect the congregation from attacks;
- And after an increase of mosque attacks in the United Kingdom, a local orthodox Jewish neighbourhood watch team began assisting Muslim leaders to ensure safe access to mosques and alert them to possible attacks.
This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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