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The worst countries for religious freedom

By Brian Pellot / 3 January, 2014

Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma at a protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Image: Khairil Safwan/Demotix)

Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma at a protest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Image: Khairil Safwan/Demotix)

At its core, freedom of religion or belief requires freedom of expression. Both fundamental rights are protected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet nearly half of all countries penalize blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion. In 13 countries, atheists can be put to death for their lack of belief.

The U.S. State Department names and shames eight “Countries of Particular Concern” that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders. These countries not only suppress religious expression, they systematically torture and detain people who cross political and social red lines around faith. The worst of the worst are:

1. Burma

Burma’s population is 90 percent Theravada Buddhist, a faith the government embraces and promotes over Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Minority populations that adhere to these and other faiths are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to the majority faith. Religious groups must register with the government, and Burmese citizens must list their faith on official documents. Burma’s constitution provides for limited religious freedom, but individual laws and government officials actively restrict it. Most at risk in Burma are Rohingya Muslims, 240 of whom were killed this year in clashes with Buddhist mobs. Burma has refused to grant citizenship to 800,000 Rohingya, 240,000 of whom have fled their homes in recent clashes.

2. China

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is officially an atheist organisation. China’s constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, but the government actively restricts any religious expression that could potentially undermine its authority. Only five religious groups — Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants — can register with the government and legally hold services. Adherents of unregistered faiths and folk religions often worship illegally and in secret. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners have faced particularly severe repression in recent years, including forced conversion, torture and imprisonment.

3. Eritrea

The Eritrean government only recognizes four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. These groups enjoy limited religious freedom while adherents of other faiths face harassment and imprisonment. Religious persecution in Eritrea is generally driven by government rather than social concerns. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors who refuse to enroll in compulsory military training are subject to physical abuse, detention and hard labour. People of non-recognized religions are barred from congregating in disused houses of worship and have trouble obtaining passports or visas to exit the country.

4. Iran

Iran’s constitution offers some religious freedom rights for recognized sects of Islam along with Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Baha’is, who the government considers apostates and labels a “political sect,” are excluded from these limited protections and are systematically discriminated against through gozinesh provisions, which limit their access to employment, education and housing. Evangelical Christians and other faith groups face persecution for violating bans on proselytizing. Religious minorities have been charged in recent years and imprisoned in harsh conditions for committing “enmity against God” and spreading “anti-Islamic propaganda.” Government-controlled media regularly attack Baha’is, Jews and other minority faiths to amplify social hostilities against them.

5. North Korea

North Korea’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, but this right is far from upheld. The state is officially atheist. Author John Sweeney says the country is “seized by a political religion” and that it considers established religious traditions a threat to state unity and control. North Korea allow for government-sponsored Christian and Buddhist religious organizations to operate and build houses of worship, but political analysts suspect this “concession” is for the sake of external propaganda. A Christian group says it dropped  50,000 Bibles over North Korea over the past year. If caught with one, citizens face imprisonment, torture or even death. Given the government’s extreme control over the flow of reliable information, it is difficult to determine the true extent of religious persecution in North Korea.

6. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s constitution is not a standalone document. It is comprised of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, which do not include religious freedom guarantees as spelled out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Saudi, it is illegal to publicly practice any faith other than the state’s official religion Sunni Islam. Members of other faiths can worship privately, but non-Muslim houses of worship may not be built. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as Saudi’s morality or religious police, enforce Shariah law on the streets. Apostasy and blasphemy against Sunni Islam can be punished by death, as several high-profile Twitter cases have reminded global media in recent years.

7. Sudan

Sudan’s interim constitution partially protects religious freedom but restricts apostasy, blasphemy and defamation of Islam. Muslim women are also prevented from marrying non-Muslim men. The country’s vaguely worded apostasy law discourages proselytizing of non-Muslim faiths. Christian South Sudanese living in Sudan are subject to harassment and intimidation by government agents and society at large, but untangling the religious and ethnic motivations for this persecution can be difficult. Muslims generally enjoy social, legal and economic privileges denied to the Christian minority population. Government authorities have reportedly destroyed churches in recent years, and Christian groups have reportedly been subject to disproportionate taxes and delays in building new houses of worship. Read more about Sudan’s crackdown on Christians.

8. Uzbekistan

Proselytizing is prohibited in Uzbekistan, and religious groups must undergo a burdensome registration process with the government to enjoy what limited religious freedom is permitted in the country. More than 2,000 religious groups have registered with the government, the vast majority of which are Muslim but also include Jewish, Catholic and other Christian communities. Registered and unregistered groups are sometimes subject to raids, during which holy books have been destroyed. Individuals and groups deemed “extremist,” often for national security concerns rather than specific aspects of their faith, are imprisoned under harsh conditions and tortured, sometimes to death.

This article was posted on Jan 3 2013 at indexoncensorship.org

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About Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is Director of Global Strategy and Religious Freedom Editor @RNS. Formerly @indexcensorship & @onfreespeech.

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4 Responses to The worst countries for religious freedom

  1. Manotar Tampubolon Reply

    30 March at 08:43

    Indonesia must be included! There is no religious freedom for Christian in Indonesia. The government deprive minority rights to religious freedom and belief by enacting discriminatory laws, no legal action taken against violator. More and more place of worship burdened, attacks on minority is common.No protection given to minority by the state.

  2. abdul zamani Reply

    6 January at 23:55

    Yes,I know there is clashes between Muslims and buddhists in Myanmar,both sides fight with each other,but in Iran Baha’is do not fight with anybody still the government of Iran put them in prison or kill them.So Iran is the worst country in this perspective.
    with love,dad

  3. Nana33 Reply

    6 January at 22:23

    Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (SWS), do include religious freedom : Surah Al-Kafiroon
    In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
    Say: O disbelievers! (1) I worship not that which ye worship; (2) Nor worship ye that which I worship. (3) And I shall not worship that which ye worship. (4) Nor will ye worship that which I worship. (5) Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion. (6)
    سُوۡرَةُ الکافِرون
    بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
    قُلۡ يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلۡڪَـٰفِرُونَ (١) لَآ أَعۡبُدُ مَا تَعۡبُدُونَ (٢) وَلَآ أَنتُمۡ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَآ أَعۡبُدُ (٣) وَلَآ أَنَا۟ عَابِدٌ۬ مَّا عَبَدتُّمۡ (٤) وَلَآ أَنتُمۡ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَآ أَعۡبُدُ (٥) لَكُمۡ دِينُكُمۡ وَلِىَ دِينِ (٦)

    • Saty13 Reply

      30 June at 06:27

      Nana33,
      Unfortunately you quoted an EARLY passage in the Koran. Muslims are taught that the early passages are officially annulled / superseded by the later passages, which happen to be full of intolerance and hate and militarism. It’s the later part that all Islamic schools teach – everywhere in the world. (If you want to understand this better, look up the principle of “abrogation” in Islam.)

      The fact is, much of the Quran is dedicated to distinguishing Muslims from non-Muslims and denigrating non-Muslims. For example:

      “And never will Allah grant to the unbelievers a way to triumph over believers” (4:141)
      “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves…” (48:29)

      The Koran says that the only acceptable position of non-Muslims is to be subjugated under Muslims under Islamic laws:

      “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya (tax) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (9:29)

      (Jizya is the money that non-Muslims must pay to their Muslim overlords in any Islamic state.)

      The Quran tells Muslims to be compassionate with one another but ruthless to the infidels (non-believers).
      Verse 7:176 compares non-believers to “panting dogs” with regard to their idiocy and worthlessness. Verse 7:179 says they are like “cattle” only worse. Verse 5:60 even says that Allah transformed Jews of the past into apes and pigs. This is echoed by verses 7:166 and 2:65.

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