Pohyon Temple in the Myohyang mountains, once a national center for Korean Buddhism. Credit: Uri Tours / Flickr
After the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent organisation created by the US Congress to evaluate religious freedom conditions around the world, released its 2015 report, it became clear that an insufficient amount of progress had been made since Index on Censorship last reported on the issue.
Here’s a roundup of some the most appalling religious freedom violations from across the globe.
Bigotry and intolerance continue to scorch the lives of religious and ethnic minorities in Burma, particularly Rohingya Muslims. The Burmese government demonstrated little effort toward intervening or properly investigating claims of abuse, including those carried out by religious figures in the Buddhist community. As internet availability spread throughout the country, social media played a role in promoting a platform of hate and proposed violence against minority populations. Rohingya Muslims in the country face a unique level of discrimination and persecution. The government denies them citizenship and the right to identify as Rohingya. Additionally, four discriminatory race and religion bills could further the prejudices affecting religious minorities.
North Korea is a nation where genuine freedom of religion or belief is non-existent; it remains one of the most oppressive regimes and worst violators of human rights. Punishment comes to those who pose difficult questions while the government maintains its control through a constant threat of imprisonment, torture and even death for those who break the law regarding religion. Estimates suggest up to 200,000 North Koreans are currently suffering in labor camps, tens of thousands of whom are there for practicing heir faith. In February 2014, the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released its report documenting the systematic, severe violations of human rights in the country. It found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience”.
Officially an Islamic state with eight to ten million expatriate workers of different faiths, Saudi Arabia continues to restrict most forms of public religious expression inconsistent with its interpretation of Sunni Islam. The government continues to use criminal charges of blasphemy to suppress any dialogue between dissenting viewpoints, with a new law helping drive home the goal of silence. The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing criminalises virtually all forms of peaceful dissent and free expression, including criticising the government’s view of Islam. Lastly, authorities continue to discriminate grossly against dissident clerics and members of the Shia community.
The Sudanese government continues to engage in massive violations of freedom of religion, due to president Omar al-Bashir’s policies of Islamisation and restrictive interpretation of sharia law. Despite 97% of the population being Muslim, there is a wide range of other religions practiced. The country’s turmoil from religious persecution rests on the 1991 Criminal Code, the 1991 Personal Status Law of Muslims, and state-level “public order” laws, which have restricted freedom for all Sudanese. The laws – which contradict the country’s constitutional and international commitments to human rights and freedom of religion – allow death sentences for apostasy, stoning for adultery, cross-amputations for theft, prison sentences for blasphemy and floggings for undefined “offences of honor, reputation and public morality”. Since 2011, more than 170 people have been arrested and charged with apostasy.
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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Join the Index mailing list and get an exclusive gift” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:left” use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]
Index on Censorship’s summer magazine 2016
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You’ll also get access to an exclusive collection of articles from our landmark 250th issue of Index on Censorship magazine exploring journalists under fire and under pressure. Your downloadable PDF will include reports from Lindsey Hilsum, Laura Silvia Battaglia and Hazza Al-Adnan.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][gravityform id=”20″ title=”false” description=”false” ajax=”false”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator color=”black”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Uzbekistan
In Uzbekistan, the government imprisons individuals for not conforming to officially prescribed practices or whom it claims are extremist, including as many as 12,000 Muslims. A highly restrictive religion law is imposed, the 1998 Law on Freedom of Consciences and Religious Organisations, which severely limits the rights of all religious groups and facilitates Uzbek government control over religious activity. Many who don’t fit into the framework of officially approved practices are regularly repressed. Additionally, the government has continued a campaign against independent Muslims, targeting those linked to the May 2005 protests in Andijan; 231 are still imprisoned in connection to the events, and ten have died. All the while, Uzbekistan has pressured countries to return Uzbek refugees who fled during the Andijan tragedy.
In an environment of nearly inescapable government information control, severe religion freedom breaches persist in Turkmenistan. Continuing police raids and harassment of registered and unregistered religious groups matched with laws and policies that violate international human rights norms has the nation as one of the year’s biggest offenders. With an estimated total population of 5.1 million, the US government projects that the country is 85% Sunni Muslim, 9% Russian Orthodox, and a 2% total that includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and evangelical Christians. Despite Turkmenistan’s constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom and separation of religion from the state, the 2003 religion law negates these provisions while setting intrusive registration criteria for individuals. It also requires that the government is informed of all foreign financial support, forbids worship in private homes and places discriminatory restrictions on religious education.
While the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, this idea really only applies to “normal religions”, better known as the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” associated with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Even still, the government monitors religious activities unfairly, and there has been an increased religious persecution of Uighur Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism. All around repression in China worsened in 2014, including the governmental push for controlling Tibet, Xinjiang, and even Hong Kong, as well as controls on the internet, social media, human rights defenders, activists and journalists.
Ongoing religious freedom abuses have continued in Eritrea, including torture or ill-treatment of religious prisoners, random arrests without charges and banning’s on public religious activities. The situation is especially serious for Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the government suppresses Muslim religious activities and those opposed to the government-appointed head of the community. In 2002, the government increased its control over religion by imposing a registration requirement on all religious groups other than the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The requirements mandated that the non-preferred religious communities provide detailed information about their finances, membership, activities, and benefit to the country. Additionally, released religious prisoners have reported to USCIRF that they were confined in crowded conditions, and subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations. The government continued to arrest and detain followers of unregistered religious communities. Recent estimates suggest 1,200 to 3,000 people are imprisoned on religious grounds in Eritrea, the majority of whom are Evangelical or Pentecostal Christians.
Poor religious freedom in Iran continued to worsen in 2014, particularly for minority groups like Bahá’ís, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims. The government is still engaging in systematic violations, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based on the religion of the accused. Despite Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians being recognised as protected minorities, the government has consistently discriminated against its citizens on the basis of religion. Killings, arrests, and physical abuse of detainees have increased in recent years, including for religious minorities and Muslims who are perceived as threatening the government’s legitimacy.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1493906845781-a7b9ac80-f77d-2″ taxonomies=”1742″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
“We believe in the Sabbath being kept holy. It seems more and more that the football agenda is being driven by the television companies and not what God says, or what public opinion is.”
Commentator Newton Emerson was, like many, blase about the protest, tweeting “I think these people are harmless enough now to just count towards our wonderful diversity.”
Be that as it may, Christian fundamentalism still plays a huge role in public life in Northern Ireland. While the old demands for Biblical propriety may seem archaic, a new struggle has emerged over what many religious people in the country see as threats to their religious freedom and way of life. And a cake has become the latest flashpoint.
Asher’s bakery is a business run by a family known for its Christian beliefs. It is named after one of the Biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel. Last summer, the bakery was asked to provide a cake by Gareth Lee, a volunteer for LGBT group QueerSpace.
Lee had requested a cake decorated with a picture of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie and the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”.
The bakery initially accepted the order, before then informing Lee that it could not fulfil the deal. The case went to Northern Ireland’s Equality Commission, and, between the jigs and reels, is now in the hands of district judge Isobel Brownie, who will rule on Monday whether the Christian bakers engaged in unlawful discrimination by not delivering the pro-same sex marriage cake.
Meanwhile, the “gay cake” case has raised the spectre of a “conscience clause” in equality legislation in Northern Ireland.
The whole situation is, quite frankly, pitiful. One can preach it, validly, both ways: fundamentalist bigots out of touch with the modern world, and inflicting their bigotry on others, or God-fearing, humble folk sticking by their beliefs in the face of an onslaught they didn’t invite.
I can’t help feel sympathetic towards the McArthurs, the family who own the bakery. Karen McArthur told the court that she had initially accepted the order to avoid embarrassment. Colin McArthur said “On that day I didn’t make a clinical decision. I was examining my heart. I was wrestling it over in my heart and in my mind.” He was, apparently, “deeply troubled”. “We discussed how we could stand before God and bake a cake like this promoting a case like this…”
On the other hand, Gareth Lee said he was left feeling like a lesser person after he was told his order would not be fulfilled.
This shouldn’t be down to who was more upset or offended, but then, on what criteria can we judge it? I don’t think it’s necessarily true to say that Lee is entitled to have any message he wants put on any cake by any person. The prosecution, correctly, pointed out that the message was rejected because of the word “gay”. The defence lawyers suggested that a ruling against the McArthurs could lead to a situation where devout Muslims were legally obliged to decorate cakes with images of Muhammad. While “you wouldn’t say that about the Muslims” is a tedious argument, and one deployed increasingly often by Christians, it’s not, in this case, an entirely unreasonable position.
Hardline Christians see homosexuality as a (wrong) choice people make, or a psychological disorder. I recall watching the Reverend Willie McRea, an MP, once, being asked what support he would offer to a constituent who was a victim of homophobia. McRea replied that he would advise the young man not go down that route: basically, the best way to prevent homophobia is to stop being gay.
Meanwhile, Iris Robinson, wife of Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson, firmly believes that one can be counselled away from homosexuality.
These people are odd, certainly, but they are not fringe characters who can be dismissed as irrelevant to mainstream society in Northern Ireland.
And even if these views were not mainstream, that would not make the fundamentals of the case any different. But it does seem as if the Equality Commission is trying to drag a segment of Northern Irish society kicking and screaming into the secular world.
So who’s right? Who should win? Reader, I am about to break the columnist’s solemn covenant and admit: I don’t fully know. This is not as clear cut a case of discrimination as, say, barring a gay couple from a Bed and Breakfast: if the McArthurs had simply refused to sell a cake to Lee, that would be clear cut. But the cake was loaded, so to speak. Should this tricky case lead to a “conscience clause” in equality legislation, then one can imagine legitimisation of genuinely discriminatory practices.
At the same time, the McArthurs, are wrong, and one’s initial inclination is to side with the gay rights activist against the religious fundamentalists. But that’s the problem with defending freedom of conscience, (and its expression in freedom of speech). Everyone’s conscience is different.
Northern Ireland beat Finland 2-1, by the way. God’s clearly not very troubled by Sunday football.
What is the solution to the Muslim Problem? Britain has tried multiculturalism; the French, a stricter enforcement of secularism. Neither has been an unequivocal success.
I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. I have only doubts and questions, whereas the terrorists have certainties and guns.
The only thing I can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the right not to be offended is a ridiculous thing. For there is no way to measure a subjective, emotional state other than to ask “Does this offend you?” in the same way you would ask “Are you tired?”, “Are you hungry?”, “Do you love me?”
One person’s silly cartoon is another person’s existential threat. Try as I might, I cannot get offended by a drawing. Maybe I’m a bad Muslim, maybe a true believer would be so mortally wounded by an image, any image, of the Prophet Mohammed that the only remedy is bloodshed. But I don’t think that’s the case. Much of the outrage is manufactured, stoked up by rabble-rousers for political purposes. Because that’s the brilliance of the right not to be offended (Irony — just to be crystal- clear): you can get offended on other people’s behalf, you can get offended about books you haven’t read, about things that may or may not exist.
Loath as I am to bring up scripture in a discussion about religion, the Islamic prohibition against making graven images of the Prophet Mohammed only really applies to Muslims. It stems from the same commandment not to worship false idols, intended to protect against idolatry.
As far as I’m aware neither Stephane Charbonnier nor any of his leading cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo was a practising Muslim. The two victims believed to be Muslims, copy-editor Mustapha Ourad and policeman Ahmed Merabet, appear to have been collateral damage rather than targets.
So, just to make the murders even more pointless, you have Muslims killing non-Muslims for not sufficiently respecting something which they don’t believe in. Irony? I’m not sure.
Not that there is any justification. It is a shabby excuse for a heinous act, convenient religious cover for something that is probably nothing more than a twisted marketing stunt for al Qaeda in Yemen, if initial accounts prove to be true. The killings were not carried out to “avenge” the Prophet’s honour. Their real intent was to remind the West: “We’re still here”.
Many lofty and true words will be written about the need to protect the freedom of expression. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo wasn’t an attack on freedom of expression. It was an attack on an easy target. A group of middle-aged, unarmed cartoonists were never going to be much of a match for battle-hardened jihadists brandishing Kalashnikovs.
Satire is scary for people who can’t live with doubt. Because satire is all about creating doubt, questioning the way things are done, challenging those in power, pushing for change. I don’t know if the killings say more about the power of satire or the weakness of the gunmen’s supposed faith.
The jihadists want us to accept their narrative, that they are brave holy warriors and not just some over-sensitive, bloodthirsty bullies. But I have my doubts. I think the terrorists continue to provoke fear because they’re afraid. Afraid that we’ll realise their brand of religion is a joke.
“We want to laugh at the extremists – every extremist. They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept,” Laurent Léger, a journalist at Charlie Hebdo–a satirical magazine where an extremist attack killed 12 people on Wednesday—told BFM-TV in 2012. Some weeks ago, a violent extremist attack also killed three people in Sydney. In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 77 people in a terrorist attack in Norway. During the late 20th century, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants also claimed the lives of thousands in Northern Ireland. The list of conflicts goes on.
Religious extremism is one of the greatest challenges facing society in the 21st century. Many world conflicts are closely linked to restrictions on religious freedoms. These horrific attacks will continue until there is an understanding of how important it is for people to be free to believe and practice their religion.
Religious freedom is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have the right to change religion or belief. We have the right to pray in private or public. We have the right to teach about our religion, but we can only keep these rights if we do not give in to religious discrimination, such as Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism or even discrimination against atheists.
On the #IndexDrawtheLine Twitter feed, some readers emphasised the importance of institutions in countering religious extremism. @KayRobinson thinks that institutions should adopt a secular law but “hold an authentic respect for religious values.” Organisations, such as governments, have to effectively counter extremism but society also has a responsibility. We have to support the values of religious freedom, and to ensure people expressing a range of differing views and values are not silenced.