Threats to religious freedom
Last week Saturday, a minister of religion told me that he officiated at a wedding between two persons of different denominations because the bride's pastor would not countenance a wedding of one of his members with a person from another denomination. The young woman was a leader in the church and she had to be baptised again for committing the sin of marrying not a non-Christian, but a Christian from another denomination. This is subtle threat to religious expression. It was the same day on which Seventh-day Adventists hosted a conference about religious liberty in Jamaica and praised was heaped on Jamaica for its tolerance of other religious beliefs.
Religious freedom was not always so in Jamaica. In 1494, with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the explorer, Christianity became dominant. The Spanish suppressed the beliefs of Tainos and subsequently, those of the Africans, an example to be followed by the English after they arrived in 1655. In this slavery era, religious freedom meant freedom for state churches of Rome, England and Scotland only. The dominant missionary Christian expression not only despised Dissenters but there was persecution of minority religions in the late 19th century. Non-Christian religions were outlawed and Hindus and Muslims had to congregate in secret.
Religious freedom allows an individual or community, in public, personally or privately, to declare religious belief, teaching, practice, worship and observance without hindrance or persecution. It also includes the freedom to seek to convert others to one's belief, and also includes the freedom to change religion or not to follow any religion. Religious freedom does not mean a free-for-all where anyone or group can engage in illegal practices or have so-called religious observances that are harmful to people.
There are provisions in Jamaica's Charter of Fundamental Rights 2011 which guarantee religious freedom. In the 21st century, Jamaica has no documentation of religious detainees or prisoners, and no reports of forced conversion from one religion to another. This is commendable.
Religious freedom for the Christian faith can be traced to Constantine. In 313, the Edict of Milan announced "that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best", thereby granting tolerance to all religions, including Christianity. Constantine encouraged religious freedom. It is sad that in so many parts of the world, Christians are killed for being Christian.
There are examples of societal and legal discrimination against African religious beliefs and practices, with little or no agitation from denominations and church councils. It has been illegal from the 19th century to practise obeah, to consult with practitioners of obeah, and the publication and distribution of any material calculated to promote obeah. It is a threat to religious freedom to criminalise those who believe, practise or promote obeah. The church councils' failure to agitate against obeah law shows a weak commitment to religious freedom. Unfortunately, legislators Lambert Brown and Tom Tavares-Finson have not been able to get the law changed.
African Religious Expressions
Other African religious expressions such as Pocomania and Kumina are tolerated for cultural and entertainment value. Up until 1998, Mormonism had a rough passage getting acceptance in Parliament. There needs to be a greater appreciation that religious freedom extends beyond Christianity and ought to be extended to all, providing no one is harmed by these practices.
The 'no preaching' policy on JUTC buses must be handled with care, lest it becomes a threat to religious freedom, and smacks of targeting preachers from the lower classes. There is a role for a regularised public transportation chaplaincy based on registration and proper scheduling.
The Adventists must be commended for reminding us about the importance of religious freedom and we need to ensure that such freedom, which has been built, and from which most religious believers have benefited, is guarded. Any threat to religious freedom, perceived or real, must be dealt with forthwith.
Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com