Religious freedom deteriorating globally, report says

Monday, November 6, 2000 | Tag Cloud Tags:

WASHINGTON D.C., 6 November 2000 (Newsroom) — Religious freedom around the world is deteriorating, according to a report by Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.

Published as a book by Broadman & Holman, “Religious Freedom in the World: a Global Report on Freedom and Persecution,” ranks 75 countries encompassing more than 90 percent of the world’s population.

As an accessible, comparative survey of religious freedom, the report is the first of its kind, explained general editor Paul Marshall. The report shows that large countries in particular have been trending downward, especially since the mid-1990s, potentially jeopardizing a range of human rights should religious freedom continue to erode, Marshall told Newsroom.

Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea said the report would be useful to journalists and religious groups as well as to members of Congress determining where the U.S. should send foreign aid or bestow favorable treatment. “It may force political leaders to make sure religion is brought up in debate,” she said.

At present, the U.S. State Department puts out a voluminous annual religious freedom report as required by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.

Shea, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that was established by the 1998 legislation, explained that a reader would get lost in the government report’s “welter of detail” without being able to effectively prioritize information.

By contrast, the Freedom House survey is slim and uses a grading scale to organize countries along a continuum. A ranking of 1 to 3 qualifies a country as “free”; a 4 or 5 signifies a country is “partly free”; and a 6 or 7 gains the recipient an “unfree” status. More than 60 scholars from the U.S. and abroad representing a variety of disciplines and religions participated in the survey.

Shea said the report meets the need for a “non-government source that can track religious freedom and be disinterested in the outcome.” She expressed concern that the State Department’s document might be reluctant to “stir the pot” with certain governments in which the U.S. has an interest. “Religious Freedom in the World,” she explained, uses a detailed list of criteria — printed as an appendix to the book — to measure the religious freedom of each nation and “lets the chip fall where they may.”

Following are some of the survey’s findings:

• Conditions for religious freedom are worsening, particularly in large countries such as China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. However, India and — as of last year — Indonesia both hold democratic elections. Nonetheless, India’s Muslim minority and smaller Christian minority have come under increasing attack in an atmosphere of inflamed Hindu nationalism, the report states, especially in Gujarat. Persecution has included destruction of churches, rape, and murder, among other things. Since late 1998, the report claims, attacks have increased in number. This fall, for example, a mob in the state of Orissa killed a Roman Catholic and a nun was kidnapped in Bihar, an eastern state.

• Contemporary conflict seems to be taking on an increasingly religious nature. In Indonesia, violence appears to be marked by escalating religious rhetoric and stated religious motivation. In 1999, inter-communal fighting between Muslims and Christians in Ambon resulted in hundreds of deaths. This year what Marshall called a “new component” has changed the nature of such conflict, giving it more structure. Thousands of “jihad warriors” have been “organizing in militia camps in Java,” according to the report. Additionally — and not included in the survey — the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shown signs that it, too, is becoming more religious than formerly, Marshall said, noting recent attacks on Joseph’s tomb, synagogues, and mosques within Israel as well as heightened religious rhetoric. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah existed 30 years ago, he pointed out.

• Religious freedom is not a Western phenomenon. Countries like Botswana and Namibia scored higher than Belgium and France, due partly to an intensifying reaction against so-called “cults” in Western European nations. In France, for example, the prime minister and the president together issued a decree in 1998 establishing an anti-cult task force possessed of broad investigatory powers. Late last year, the Senate approved a proposed law that would permit the dissolution of groups that “threaten public order” or “constitute a major danger to individuals.”

• Nor does there seem to be much correlation between religious freedom and wealth. The report gave the United States a score of 1, Saudi Arabia a 7.

• Though relatively free countries can be found on every continent, those surveyed in Western Europe and the North Atlantic area all scored from 1 to 3. Latin American nations, save Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico, likewise scored within the “free” category. Four of the six African nations surveyed are religiously “free.” Eastern European and former Soviet bloc countries garnered a range of scores — from Estonia, 1, to Turkmenistan, 7. Most of these countries fall in the middle of the continuum, indicating the currently transitional nature of their societies. Countries in the band stretching from northern Africa through the eastern Mediterranean to West Asia scored low. Israel rated a 3, the highest score given among these nations. Saudi Arabia, as previously noted, Sudan, and Iran received 7s.

• While the report concedes that governing regimes may not reflect the religious backgrounds of their respective nations, it nonetheless notes patterns and correlations between countries’ religious freedom scores and their religious backgrounds. Countries that are historically Christian tended to score the highest in the reports ranking, comprising 29 of the 34 “free” countries. Israel and four countries of mostly Buddhist background also qualified as “free.” With the exception of those under communist control and a couple of others, Buddhist countries generally scored high. Hindu countries scored low. Muslim countries qualified as the least free, with almost half falling into the “unfree” category and none emerging as “free.” Marshall noted that if the survey had been conducted in 1970, traditionally Christian countries under communist control would have scored in the “unfree” category.

Freedom House is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes liberty and democracy throughout the world.

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