Take joy in the freedom to worship (or not) that we have in the U.S.

Written by William C. Duncan

April 15, 2022

In a rare occurrence noted in the news, the religious celebrations and holy days of Easter (Christianity), Ramadan (Islam) and Passover (Judaism) all fall in the month of April this year. This convergence of religious celebrations and observances offers members of all religions – and those who claim no religion at all – an opportunity to reflect on the ways that we as Americans generally enjoy a freedom to express our deepest and most cherished beliefs. It is also an opportunity to remember those who live in conditions where such expressions are aggressively or even violently discouraged.

A recent post described the ways that Americans experience religious discrimination at work. These are serious and worth redressing. But in the news, we see far more drastic attacks on religious freedom every day.

The natural focus of attention is on Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion has led to concerns about persecution of religious groups. Nathaniel Hurd of the Religious Freedom Institute notes:

Religious freedom violations could expand as the Kremlin’s latest attack on Ukraine persists. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussain, has already reported “damage to the Catholic diocese in Kharkiv, as well as the Babyn Yar in Kyiv [a memorial to, and mass grave site of, the more than 33,000 Jewish people the Nazis killed in the Babyn Yar ravine over two days in September 1941] … [and] alarming reports of the Kremlin’s plans to strike the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv.”

Experience gives credence to these concerns. The bipartisan Ukraine Religious Freedom Support Act pending in Congress includes information from the State Department and other groups about attacks on religious freedom in areas where Russia had previously invaded:

Violations of religious freedom in the Crimea region of Ukraine since Russia invaded and occupied the territory have included abduction, detention and imprisonment, torture, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, fines, restrictions on missionary activities, confiscations of property, including churches and meeting halls, expulsions and obstructions to reentry, denying registration of religious groups, vandalism, fines, and banning peaceful religious groups, and targeted groups have included Muslim Crimean Tatars, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formerly the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Protestant Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Similar actions have been reported “in the part of the Donbas region of Ukraine controlled by armed groups commanded by Russia.”

This situation, unfortunately, is not isolated.

The State Department designates certain nations as “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations. These countries “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom” defined as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including violations such as torture, degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons.”

The countries currently designated as of particular concern are: Burma, People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The State Department also has a “Special Watch List” (Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua) and a list of other groups that engage in serious violations of religious freedom but which are not countries (i.e., terrorist groups that control significant geographic regions).

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an “an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the U.S. Department of State, that monitors and reports on religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress,” provides details on the types of violations seen in the countries of particular concern.

  • Burma: “The United Nations (UN) reported that at least 500 civilians, mostly Rohingya Muslims and some Christians, were killed in 2020 in Rakhine and Chin states, and more than 100 children were killed or maimed during the first half of the year.”
  • China: “According to reports, thousands of Falun Gong practitioners were harassed and arrested during 2020 for practicing their faith, and some likely died due to abuse and torture while in custody. Credible international reports also suggested that organ harvesting, including from Falun Gong practitioners, likely continued.”
  • Eritrea: “In 2020, approximately 500 to 1,200 individuals were estimated to be in prison in Eritrea due to their faith. Authorities continued to hold the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and USCIRF Religious Prisoner of Conscience Abune Antonios under house arrest.”
  • Iran: “During the year [2020], scores of Christians were arrested, assaulted, and unjustly sentenced to years in prison. … The government also continued to arrest Baha’is and impose lengthy prison sentences on them. … In September, Iran’s Supreme Court affirmed death sentences for seven Sunni prisoners on charges including ‘waging war against God’ and ‘corruption on Earth.’”
  • North Korea: “Authorities target and persecute various religious groups and adherents, including Protestants, Buddhists, adherents of shamanism or traditional Korean folk religion, Chondoists, and others. The songbun system classifies citizens based on their perceived loyalty to the state; religious practitioners belong to the ‘hostile’ class and are considered enemies of the state, deserving ‘discrimination, punishment, isolation, and even execution.’”
  • Pakistan: “The issue of abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape, and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children, particularly from the Hindu and Christian faiths.”
  • Russia: “During the year, 72 Jehovah’s Witnesses – including at least six from Russian-occupied Crimea – were detained under pretrial detention, house arrest, or incarceration. In 2020, the government also used its anti-extremism law to persecute religious minorities, particularly Muslims.”
  • Saudi Arabia: “Throughout 2020, Saudi Arabia continued to detain and mistreat individuals who dissented from the government’s interpretation of Islam, including USCIRF Religious Prisoner of Conscience Raif Badawi, his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, and atheist poet Ashraf Fayadh.”
  • Tajikistan: “Authorities have banned Salafi Islam since 2009, calling it ‘extremist’; as a result, the mere performance of Islamic rituals in ways the authorities deem ‘foreign’ or inconsistent with the government’s interpretation of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is subject to criminal prosecution.”
  • Turkmenistan: “The government continued to treat all independent religious activity with suspicion, maintaining a large surveillance apparatus that monitors believers at home and abroad. Turkmenistani law requires religious groups to register under intrusive criteria, strictly controls registered groups’ activities, and punishes religious activities by unregistered groups, which are effectively banned.”

The COVID pandemic appears to have heightened threats to religious freedom across the globe, providing cover in some cases for increasing mistreatment – sometimes brutally inhumane and violent – of minority religious groups.

Although we must be vigilant to ensure that religious freedom conflicts are prevented or resolved in the United States, it is good occasionally to recognize and feel sincere appreciation for the remarkable freedom we enjoy. So, whether this April brings to you a celebration of Easter, fasting for Ramadan, commemoration of Passover, or no religious commemoration at all – take the opportunity to celebrate religious freedom and the peace and prosperity it offers everyone to believe, speak and live as their own conscience dictates.

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