Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Religious liberty under attack worldwide

Published:Sunday | January 4, 2015 | 12:00 AM
File In this September 2013 photo, demonstrators take part in a protest against Quebec's proposed "charter of values" in Montreal. The separatist Parti Quebecois government had announced that the law would ban public employees from wearing religious headgear, including Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps.
Dwayne Leslie
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The new report released this year by Pew Research's Religious and Public Life Project highlights a number of troubling trends that should concern anyone - whether private citizen or public official - about the state of religious freedom around the world as of 2012.

That, "the share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012", according to the Pew study, is disheartening, if not surprising. The report found that a full third of the nearly 200 countries and territories surveyed "had high religious hostilities in 2012." This continues the disturbing trajectory seen in recent years (just under 30 per cent in 2011 and an even 20 per cent in 2007). It is alarming to see the more than 10 per cent increase that took place just in the 12 months between 2011 and 2012.

Potentially, even more disturbing is that, "while the share of countries with a high or very high level of government restrictions on religion stayed roughly the same", Europe saw the highest level of increase in restrictions in the last year (2012). Not the Middle East, or certain traditionally religion-unfriendly countries in Asia, not Africa ... but supposedly reasonable Europe. It begs the question: if religious liberty can be encroached upon in a place like Europe, who's to say that any place in the world is safe from new restrictions? And here's another frightening statistic: "More than three-quarters of the world's population now resides in an area featuring religious restrictions - be they government-imposed or from social hostilities".

Another way in which Pew assesses the status of religious liberty around the world also shows deterioration - with increases in levels of harassment or intimidation of certain minority religious groups. The current study found a six-year high in the number of countries in which two key religious groups - Muslims and Jews - were harassed by people, governments or other groups.

And it's not just people and groups that are overtly and consistently hostile to religion that are the problem. Religious group-on-religious-group hostilities are a significant issue as well. For example, Pew's study cites the well-publicised attack by monks in Sri Lanka on Muslim and Christian places of worship, in which they used force to seize control of a Seventh-day Adventist church in Deniyaya, turning it into a Buddhist temple in the process. But that's just one disheartening example of thousands that could be cited, as, overall, the Pew Report documented that "religion-related terrorist violence" occurred in about a fifth of countries worldwide, up from nine per cent in 2007.

Truth be told, there is little good news at all in Pew's latest research, such that the fact that overall, government restrictions on religion worldwide increased only slightly from 2011. But even within that arena, there was an increase in use of government force against religious groups, to 48 per cent of countries in 2012 (compared to 41 per cent in 2011).

I would encourage anyone interested in religious liberty to read Pew's full report here: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/01/14/religious-hostilities-reach-six-year-.

In conclusion, if there is a true silver lining in this research, perhaps it is that 29 per cent of countries actually saw a decrease in the level of restrictions on religious liberty between 2011 and 2012. Yes, that is more than offset by the 61 per cent of countries that experience increased restrictions during the same time period. However, it shows that motivated governments, seriously focused on ensuring the rights of their citizenry, can make a difference.

And reducing the assault on religious freedoms is something every government leader and elected official around the world should be intently focused on as we enter this New Year.

I commend those countries which were voices for freedom of religion last year through various congresses, symposiums and festivals, and welcome countries which will do the same this year, such as Jamaica, who will embark on its first festival of religious freedom on January 24.

n Dwayne Leslie is the director of legislative affairs for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Email feedback to editorial@gleanerjm.com