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Religious freedom seriously lacking for three-fourths of world’s population, ambassador says

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, on March 4, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Christian Hartmann *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FREEDOM-REPORT, originally transmitted on August 10, 2016.

WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. State Department warned that religion-based terrorists as well as some governments across the globe are threatening the liberties of religious minorities.

“One of the best ways to deny these murderers their victory is by ensuring that those they have sought to destroy not only survive, but thrive,” said Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announcing the 2015 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom on Tuesday (Aug. 10).

Though the report has often focused on serious violations of religious freedom by governments across the globe, Blinken said it also details the “major threat” by groups like Daesh (or the Islamic State group), al-Qaida, al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

“There is, after all, no more egregious form of discrimination than separating out the followers of one religion from another — whether in a village, on a bus, in a classroom — with the intent of murdering or enslaving the members of a particular group,” he said.

The document, in its 18th year, includes details of how almost 200 countries are faring in protecting the religious liberty of their citizens.

David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks at news conference announcing Open Doors’ annual World Watch List on Jan. 13, 2016 in Washington. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

David Saperstein, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks at a news conference announcing Open Doors’ annual World Watch List on Jan. 13, 2016, in Washington. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

David Saperstein, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said 24 percent of the world’s countries — in which 74 percent of the world’s population lives — have serious restrictions on religious freedom, based on government policies or hostile acts by individual organizations or societies.

He highlighted the report’s emphasis on laws around the globe about blasphemy and apostasy: “No one region, country or religion is immune to the pernicious effects of such legislation.”

The report notes that people are imprisoned with death sentences in Mauritania and Pakistan for allegedly criticizing the Prophet Muhammad or desecrating the Quran, while Saudi Arabia has overturned a poet’s death sentence for apostasy charges but he was instead sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes.

Saperstein cited the example of a boy who was playing soccer in Syria, “said a bad word out of his frustration” and was detained by the Islamic State for cursing God.

“In a matter of days he was marched out into a public square and murdered by a firing squad in front of a crowd of hundreds, including his parents,” said Saperstein. “Chilling stories like this show how terrorist organizations have committed by far some of the most egregious abuses when claiming individuals have engaged in apostasy, blasphemy or cursing God.”

State actions based on blasphemy charges include Iran’s executions of prisoners of conscience for their beliefs, Pakistan’s arrests of Muslims and Christians and the fining of an avowed atheist in Muenster, Germany, for bumper stickers that challenged Catholic beliefs.

Saperstein, who has visited 25 countries in the year and a half he has held his State Department role, said the U.S. is working with governments and other organizations to press for changes in the laws. He cited Iceland’s dropping of its blasphemy law last year as a model for others.

But he also credited those outside government for taking action to fight blasphemy laws as well as working to protect religious minorities in other ways. He praised groups, including Muslims youths, who formed human rings around synagogues facing anti-Semitic threats and Muslims who attended Masses in France in solidarity with their communities after the recent beheading of a Catholic priest.

The State Department also designates “Countries of Particular Concern,” which are known for ongoing religious freedom violations. In February, it announced the current list of those countries: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

8 Comments

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  • It should be noted that around the world, atheists are at the forefront of the fight for religious freedom (which includes the freedom not to believe in deities or be forced into a religion), and the separation of church and state. They are often among the first to speak out, and the first to be imprisoned or killed. In 13 countries, atheists face the death penalty: 1. Afghanistan 2. Iran 3. Malaysia 4. Maldives 5. Mauritania 6. Nigeria 7. Pakistan 8. Qatar 9. Saudi Arabia 10. Somalia 11. Sudan 12. United Arab Emirates 13. Yemen. It’s unfortunate that an article on “religious freedom” makes no mention of them or their heroic sacrifices for freedom.

  • That what makes pseudo-persecutions such as the “War on Christmas” seem so needy, shallow, slimy and manipulative from people who live in a nation where there’s practically a church on every corner.

  • That is my only hope for Hilary if she becomes president, i.e., that she will do the opposite of PC thinking and maintain religious freedom in America for the groups that don’t adhere to the present social engineering going on. If the atheists join her, that would be amazing. Unfortunately, in America, I don’t see atheists going that way. Although Dawkins came out as a “secular Christian”, and studies show that a lot of atheists both pray and believe in an afterlife. So, no telling what the atheists might do. And yes, I know that Hilary says she is a Christian/Methodist, but she is so far left in her theological thinking that John Wesley would need a very powerful telescope to find her anywhere close to his tradition.

  • Dawkins said he was a “cultural Christian” in that he still enjoys things like the traditional music he grew up with at the holidays, and similar cultural things with a religious component. But he is not a Christian, he is an atheist. If someone is praying to a deity, then they are by definition not an atheist. There is only one factor in being an atheist – a lack of belief in a deity or deities. A belief in an afterlife is held by some atheists, for example in some varieties of Buddhism, but they are atheists in that they have no belief in any deities.

  • Yep, but he can’t distance himself from Christianity. Is he really that soft? WHY would he use that phrase – he is certainly no Bertran Russell (or Christopher Hitchens for that matter). But what about the atheists who pray and believe in the afterlife? Makes no sense at all except that “eternity is in their hearts.” The ones who pray, it is surmised, are looking for the “transcendence” that eludes their “firmly” fixed worldview of nothingness but earth. Those that believe in some sort of afterlife are only consistent with the thought that MAYBE their lives actually do continue on or have some significance beyond the speck of dust they are while on earth for 60-80 years. Atheism is a very shaky (and subtly arrogant) world view. It also reflects an autonomy that contradicts functioning life in a sensible world. The thinking “atheists” that I know are actually agnostics, a more tenable position to hold when all you have read are .0003 of all books ever written.

  • “Yep, but he can’t distance himself from Christianity. Is he really that
    soft? WHY would he use that phrase – he is certainly no Bertran Russell (or Christopher Hitchens for that matter).”

    Dawkins has made it perfectly clear that he is an atheist, not a Christian, and simply enjoys things like traditional music. What about being an atheist makes you think people can’t enjoy things like music, or the architecture of a cathedral, while still being an atheist? Why is that in any way “soft”? Do you think we all have to check our appreciation of art and culture at the door when we get our atheist card? Suddenly we’re all supposed to dislike things simply because they have a may have religious component? What a ridiculous notion. (And it’s Bertrand Russell, by the way.) Also, “soft” is not an insult when it means kind, thoughtful, and interested and welcoming of other people’s artistic traditions. You clearly meant it as an insult, like an insecure schoolyard bully. Oops! Coming from you, it’s a compliment.

    “But what about the atheists
    who pray and believe in the afterlife? Makes no sense at all except that
    “eternity is in their hearts.” The ones who pray, it is surmised, are
    looking for the “transcendence” that eludes their “firmly” fixed
    worldview of nothingness but earth.”

    I have no idea why some people call themselves atheists and pray to something or other, but if they believe in a deity, they’re not atheists, whatever they may call themselves. However, if they introduce themselves to me as “atheists”, that’s what I’ll be happy to refer them as, in the same way I do “Christians”, no matter how far I think they may have strayed from the field, because I like to be polite to people as much as possible.

    “Those that believe in some sort of
    afterlife are only consistent with the thought that MAYBE their lives
    actually do continue on or have some significance beyond the speck of
    dust they are while on earth for 60-80 years.”

    I don’t know their rationale, and neither do you. Unlike you, I’m not prepared to guess at their thinking, and I’d rather hear it directly from them. I find no evidence of deities or an afterlife, but personally, that makes my life, and the lives of those I share the planet with extremely significant. We have to do the very best we can, right here, right now.

    “Atheism is a very shaky (and subtly arrogant) world view. It also reflects an autonomy that contradicts functioning life in a sensible world. The thinking “atheists” that I know are actually agnostics, a more tenable position to hold when all you have read are .0003 of all books ever written.”

    Atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive. Few atheists say “There is no god”. Most say, “I see no evidence for any deities, therefore I don’t believe in any”. You would know this if you knew a bit about atheism and atheists, which clearly you don’t. Nor does atheism in any way contradict life on the planet. It is simply a lack of belief in gods, goddesses, supernatural deities, etc. Everything else is simply as is. As far as “arrogant” goes, I think it’s awfully arrogant to presume to know what people think, and what their personal views may or may not be, when you’re obviously “shaky” on the topic yourself.

    Do you believe in Odin or Thor? No? Then you’re an atheist too, as far as those gods go. Can you not find early Norse poems or metalwork interesting, beautiful, or at least technically accomplished for the time, despite your atheism? Do you have to be a Muslim to find the Taj Mahal beautiful? Seriously, what kind of blinkered, black-and-white world do you live in?

  • Obama killed Osama. This was the chant outside the White House at the time, and it remains the truth today. We Americans, with our allies, are pounding terrorists, and we’re winning. It’s an extremely difficult problem. Imagine yourself, as a world leader. A major city is in control of opposition forces. The civilian population is in terror. What do you do? You can’t just bomb the entire city, it would be a massive war crime and a humanitarian disaster on an a giant scale. You’ve killed, at best, 85% civilians, men, women, and children, and 15% enemy. Refugees are fleeing with barely the clothes on their backs. Sandi, I am asking you, human being to human being, what do you do? I don’t know what you would do, but I’d do exactly what Obama (and the former Bush Administration too) is doing – targeted drone strikes. We’re getting really good at it. Have you seen how many ISIS leaders and their pals have been blown up in the last few months? No, and here’s why. We don’t trumpet our successes. Because that helps the enemy. We publish it, sure, and anyone can look it up, but we don’t make a big deal out of it. We don’t want to give them public relations fodder. We just end them, and go quietly about our business. ISIS (ISIL) is in trouble. We, with our allies, have regained major cities. Sandi, I don’t doubt that you are a patriot, but you must look at the numbers. Our enemies have suffered real losses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American-led_intervention_in_Iraq_(2014%E2%80%93present)

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