On May 13 the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear testimony about how Islamic State is purging religious minorities. However, in the long run, the greatest threat to religious freedom worldwide is not a violent Islamist group like Islamic State, Al Qaeda, or Boko Haram.
To the contrary, the grotesque behavior of those radical, exclusivist groups—raping young girls, public beheadings, destroying museums, etc.—reinforces the importance of freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion among mainstream Muslims and others citizens worldwide. Average citizens of all faiths are quick to realize that violent Islamists want to impose their draconian Shariah on everyone and that such a prospective future is nasty and brutish.
[sharequote align="center"]The world is becoming less, not more, tolerant of religion[/sharequote]
Because the violent Islamists are so radical, they really are not an enduring threat to long-term global religious freedom. Unfortunately, however, a triple threat has emerged that will increasingly challenge religious freedom in much of the world.
That triple threat is an unlikely alliance of liberal secularists, authoritarian nationalists, and conservative cultural religionists with mutual interests to limit human rights and religious freedom narratives at the U.N. and regional associations. They will increasingly limit religious freedom in the days to come, particularly that of Christians.
Authoritarian nationalists can be found among the elite of Eurasian authoritarian regimes, most notably China and Russia but also in other former Communist countries from Belarus to Vietnam. These regimes argue that there is a distinct historical character of the nation that is distinctive, usually in terms of race, religion, and culture. Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church have mutual interests in close alignment, and thus have limited the activities of Western missionaries and faith-based organizations as un-Russian and “outside meddling.”
For instance, Mormon missionaries have been labeled by Moscow as fronts for the FBI and CIA. The Chinese state tries to control some religious movements while quashing others because appealing to a higher power is perceived to weaken the authority of the state. That is why tiny Tibet and the Dalai Lama raise the ire of Beijing. Authoritarian nationalists appeal to national identity in ways that marginalize local religious minorities and exclude foreign religious influence.
The second group, cultural religionists, includes nearly all Muslim-majority countries as well as regions within India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere where national (or regional) identity and individual identity is defined foremost in terms of religion. Examples of the anti-religious freedom bias in these governments is abundant, such as shutting down Christian orphanages in Morocco for “proselytizing” the babies in their care.
At the international level, Muslim governments repeatedly attempt to pass a “Defamation of Religions” doctrine at the U.N. General Assembly which would make it illegal to “defame” another’s religion. The measure is a thinly-veiled attempt to block Christians from worship and evangelism in Muslim-majority settings. Often, local government, such as the police, “enforces” unlawful societal sanctions against religious minorities.
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The third group are Western liberal secularists. This is a group that sees classical Christian teaching, such as the conservative Catholic and evangelical Protestant traditions, as regressive, masculinist, unenlightened, and dangerous. All people who take their faith tradition seriously, in terms of its classical theology, are derided as dangerous fundamentalists.
Strangely, some liberal secularists who oppose religion at home in their own societies remain “broad-minded” enough to allow for other countries to have their own religions free from the meddling of Western Christian proselytism. This is multi-culturalism at its worst, tossing out the Judeo-Christian tradition as superstitious mumbo-jumbo but venerating any and all other “traditions,” the more exotic the better.
For the Western secularist, conservative Christians commit two sins: they are cultural imperialists abroad and culturally regressive at home. Evangelism is pilloried as unwelcome proselytism, even brain-washing. Missionary endeavors are seen as affronts to personal privacy and cultural autonomy.
The cultural imperialism argument is used by all three groups to limit religious freedom abroad. The argument takes various forms, but it is generally something like this: “unwanted Christian zealots are disrupting things by proselytizing abroad. This is destabilizing our society. It demeans our history and culture. It inflames passions and causes violence. It should be stopped.”
As reported by the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a variety of governmental barriers have made religious freedom increasingly difficult to practice in these regions.
One example is the inability of minority religious groups to get the permits necessary to purchase or rent property to establish a house of worship. Another instance, faced routinely by faith-based humanitarian groups, is harassment by government officials showing up at odd hours to check if one’s papers are in order. Religious people can be stopped from importing or printing religious publications, wearing religious attire in public (e.g. crucifix, head scarf, yarmulke), meeting in groups of more than six, and talking about their faith publicly.
Religious minorities can be accused and imprisoned, with very little evidence, of having insulted the local majority religion or its leadership in some way. Pakistan’s Asia Bibi, a Christian who was assaulted, raped, and then sentenced to hang in Pakistan following a conversation at a local well, is a case in point.
So, while the West rightly bemoans the tragic plight of religious minorities at the hands of Islamic State, it is important to be reminded that religious persecution occurs around the world, usually with the sanction of governmental authorities.
Indeed, the conclusion of a variety of observers such as the USCIRF, the Hudson Institute, Freedom House, and the U.S. Department of State, is that the world is becoming less, not more, tolerant of religion. Unless things change, the triple threat of governments working to restrict global religious liberty, at home and in international institutions, will continue.
Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. He is the author of numerous books, including Politics in a Religious World (Continuum, 2012).
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