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Religious freedom

2011-JAN: Status of religious
freedom worldwide. Part 2

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This essay is a continuation of Part 1

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U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report 2010:

Their annual report was released on 2010-NOV-17 and covers the interval from mid 2009 to mid 2010. 1 The report's executive summary comments on:

  • Restrictions on religious expression and analysis: The report states that:
    "... over the past decade a number of states with majority or significant Muslim populations have worked through the United Nations (UN) to advance the concept of 'defamation of religions' by introducing annual resolutions on this subject at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly. While the United States deplores actions that exhibit disrespect for deeply held religious beliefs, including those of Muslims, we do not agree with the 'defamation of religions' concept because it can be used to undermine the fundamental freedoms of religion and expression."
  • Changes in the level of religious freedom: The report's executive summary contains brief descriptions religious freedoms in 27 countries, from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan. Improvements were noted in some countries; other countries declined. Many countries give little religious freedom to their citizens, and have made no significant improvements during the report's interval.

    The report lists eight countries of "particular concern:" Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

  • Intrafaith and interfaith dialogue: The report states that:
    "There have been repeated calls for the promotion of tolerance, dialogue, and coexistence, resulting in joint efforts both within and beyond the region. The Doha Conference on Interfaith Dialogue has convened annually in Qatar since 2002. Jordanian King Abdullah's "Amman Message" of 2004 has promoted a number of interfaith conferences and activities and was an important precursor to further efforts. In Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World League held an intrafaith conference for Muslims, which was followed by the July 2008 Interfaith Conference in Madrid, and then by Saudi King Abdullah's Interfaith Dialogue Initiative in November 2008 at the United Nations. 2

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Forced religious conversions in Japan:

For the past nine consecutive years, the U.S. State Department has cited the abductions and forced conversion of Unification Church members in its annual International Religious Freedom Report. The report stated:

"... there were some reports of societal abuse based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice…. The Unification Church reported some adherents were pressured by family members and professional deprogrammers to leave the church." 3

Dr. Aaron Rhodes, an international human rights advocate, and former executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights stated:

"The kidnapping and abuse of Japanese citizens by members of their own families to coerce them to change their religious beliefs is an objective fact. These abductions are not given appropriate attention, either by Japanese authorities or by international authorities and Japan’s important partners in the international community.  These failures are a shame, because with proper expressions of concern, and assistance from abroad, Japanese officials could more easily solve this problem, which has tarnished its reputation as a rule-of-law democracy, and resulted in a great deal of suffering." 4

"Since 1966, more than 4,000 members of the Unification Church of Japan have been confined by 'faith-breakers' in an attempt to force them leave the religion which they, as adults, freely chose to join. Currently, 10 to 20 Unificationists in Japan are abducted each year. Victims who escape their captors report the use of force, prison-like conditions, and intense pressure to change his or her faith. There have been reports of beatings, starvation, and rape." 4  

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Religious freedom in North America:

  • United States: Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department's annual report does not extend to religious freedom within the U.S. However, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution requires a wall of separation between religious groups and the government, thus guaranteeing little or no oppression of religious groups.

    Perhaps the main point of friction between faith groups and the government is over medical treatment of children. A few fundamentalist Christian faith groups require that prayer be used to cure illness rather than medical attention. This results in the deaths of many children due to easily cured or treated childhood diseases, like infections and childhood diabetes. The faith groups regard the choice of prayer to be an important religious freedom; the state often looks upon the death of an untreated child as manslaughter.

However, over the past decade, a significant shift has been noted in the concept of religious freedom itself. It used to refer to the freedom of an individual and faith group to follow freely their religious beliefs and practices. The meaning of the term religious freedom is becoming the freedom of individuals and faith groups to apply their religious beliefs by denigrating, oppressing and advocating the reduction in civil liberties of people -- mainly because of the victims' gender, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. For example, the federal hate crimes law of 2009 that added protection from violent attacks to all three of the above categories was widely perceived by religious conservatives as a limitation on pastors and others to express hate speech against homosexuals. No such cases have materialized since the bill was signed into law on 2009-OCT. However, the fear remains.

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  • Canada: The country enjoys a high level of religious freedom, at least in comparison to many other countries in the world. Canada has no equivalence to the wall of separation between religion and government that is enjoyed in the U.S. However, it has a tradition of minimal religious interference by the government. On the order of 20% of Canadian adults say that they attend religious services weekly, but the actual number is about 10%. These are about half the levels in the U.S.

    Conflicts were observed during 2010 in a number of areas. Most fall into two groups:

    • The shift in the meaning of "religious tolerance" to mean the freedom to discriminate on religious grounds, as discussed above.

    • Conflicts over face coverings used by some Muslim women.

Conflicts included:

    • The province of Ontario funds both Roman Catholic and Public primary and secondary schools, but discriminates against other faith groups by refusing to fund schools run by other faith groups. The province is continually criticized by the U.N. for this policy.

    • Provincial human rights tribunals and commissions have been widely criticized for limiting free speech, free expression and religious rights by their rulings. Many conservative religious groups complain about excessive limitations on hate speech that targets lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals (LGBTs).

    • A Muslim woman in Ontario launched a lawsuit against a judge who required her to remove her religious face covering while testifying so that the lawyers for the defendant could judge her demeanor and facial expressions.

    • Other conflicts over face covering involved health card photographs in Quebec, a Quebec government employee who served the public, an immigrant at a Quebec government-sponsored French language class, and a woman passenger on a bus.

    • An evangelical group "Christian Horizons" was denied a religious exemption so that they would be free to discriminate against a lesbian employee on the basis of her sexual orientation.

    • Marriage commissioners in Saskatchewan are non-clergypersons authorized by the provincial government to conduct marriages. Some sought to deny services to same-sex couples because of the commissioner's religious grounds. The provincial government asked to courts to evaluate two proposed laws that would allow the commissioners to discriminate against LGBT couples.

    • A group of parents in Quebec were denied an exemption for their children from a mandatory ethics and religious course in schools. The parents objected to the secular nature of the course.

    • An anti-gay letter that Rev. Stephen Boissoin in Alberta sent to a local newspaper. A provincial court overturned an order by the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission that had previously sanctioned and fined him.

    • Polygyny -- a type of polygamy in which one man has more than one wife -- is practiced by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on religious grounds. They believe that the highest level in Heaven -- the Celestial Kingdom -- is restricted to persons in polygynous marriages. Most live in Bountiful, British Columbia. This has led to a currently active court case testing the constitutionality of section 293 of the federal criminal code which prohibits such family structures.

    • A court decision requiring members of the Hutterite religious community to provide photographs for their driver's licenses.

    • A conflict between a human rights activist and the Catholic Insight magazine. He complained that the magazine promoted hatred of homosexuals.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "International Religious Freedom Report 2010," State Department, 2010-NOV-17, at: http://www.state.gov/
  2. "Executive Summary," International Religious Freedom Report 2010, U.S. State Department, 2010-NOV-17, at: http://www.state.gov/
  3. "Japan," International Religious Freedom Report, 2010," U.S. Department of State, 2010-NOV-17, at: http://www.state.gov/
  4. "U.S. State Department Cites Japan On Forced Religious Conversions," International Coalition for Religious Freedom," undated, at: http://www.religiousfreedom.com/
  5. Book cover image Brian J. Grim & Roger Finke, "The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the 21st Century," Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics," Cambridge University Press, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2010-JAN-25
Latest update: 2011-JAN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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