FoRB Conference will help champions of religious freedom to build a coalition

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An extensive study carried out by the Pew Research Center for 2019 — the most recent data available — revealed that government restrictions on religion around the world remained at an all-time high that year.

The American think tank’s 12th annual global study of restrictions on religion analysed data from 198 countries and territories and for policies and events in 2019 — before the Covid-19 pandemic. The restrictions that the survey monitored included laws, policies and official actions that infringe on the religious beliefs and practices of groups or individuals within a country.

The research used the Government Restrictions Index (GRI), a 10-point index based on 20 indicators, such as official actions that limit religious practices including preaching and worshipping. It found that the global median score on the GRI remained at 2.9 in 2019, the highest since Pew began tracking the trend in 2007.

Almost a third of all countries analysed (29 per cent) were found to have either “high” or “very high” restrictions — an increase to 57 countries from 56 a year earlier, matching the peak reached in 2012.

Pew reported: “In total, governments in 180 countries harassed religious groups in some way in 2019 — for example, by detaining individuals for practising their faith — and 163 governments interfered in worship. Both are peaks for the study.”

As in previous years, the study found that Christians and Muslims experienced harassment in more countries than other religious groups (153 and 147 countries, respectively).

Researchers looked closely at the experience of many other communities around the world, among them Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Zoroastrians.

Most countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions were either in the Asia-Pacific region (25 of the 50 countries in that region) or in the Middle East-North Africa region (19 of 20 countries).

The Pew data was used by President Trump in 2019, to suggest that 80 per cent of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is in significant danger or completely outlawed. But this figure is exaggerated, according to Politifact, a fact checking service run by the Poynter Institute school for journalists in Washington DC. It says the data includes many categories of laws and actions, some more repressive than others, in countries including the United States.

Professor Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief told the Religion Media Centre: “There has been concern from countries committed to human rights that more should be done to promote freedom of religion or belief for all.”

He said that the fourth International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), held in London next month, will be “the chance for all who champion freedom of religion or belief to build broad coalitions not just between governments but also with civil society actors committed to this freedom around the world to share good practice and to work together”.

In addition to highlighting the general global patterns and trends, including the situation on the ground in numerous countries, the conference will also give an opportunity to rally behind particular individuals facing persecution.

The discussions in the conference, on 5 and 6 July, will focus on three overarching themes of protection, prevention and promotion, all of which are equally important, according to Professor Shaheed, taking into account the differing situation globally.

“There has been concern from countries committed to human rights that more should be done to promote freedom of religion or belief for all.”

– Professor Ahmed Shaheed

Reports show that Christians comprise the highest proportion of people persecuted for their religion, but this must be looked at in context, he added.

“It’s very important to recognise that it [persecution] applies across the board to everybody,” he said, explaining that the incidence of persecuted Christians was highest as the religion constitutes the global majority — though often living as a minority in countries around the world.

Stressing the rallying cry for the London conference — “FoRB for all” — he said: “Other groups may claim that the intensity of their persecution is more severe. However, one should be careful in assessing all these claims not just because of lack of sufficient data, but also because all are deserving of equal respect and equal concern.

“What leads to persecution is not a person’s religion or belief as such, it’s the disregard for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It’s often the assertion of the populist majority privilege over the others that accounts for violation of this right.”

Jocelyne Cesari, professor of religion and politics at Birmingham University and visiting professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School, told the Religion Media Centre that state persecution and government discrimination against religion had increased steadily over the past two decades.

“It’s a global problem and it’s even more sensitive because most of this discrimination is masked as control for society and the security of people,” she said.

Much of this, she said, was done under the guise of anti-terrorism measures. Meanwhile, persecution was not just restricted to minorities but could also impact on the majority religion, she said, pointing to the tensions between different strains of Islam and Christianity.

Discrimination was not always the case of one religion persecuting another, she said. “Secular groups are actually sometimes very hostile and aggressive against religion … Take for example the increasing manipulation and engagement of the French state into Muslim affairs — and all of it at the detriment of religious freedom.

“There is also lots of religious discrimination outside the state in France which has come from very secular and even leftist groups.”

“Public discussions” such as what will take place at the London conference are a “positive step,” she stressed, but there is “no neat wrapped-up solution.”

When asked for her thoughts on Christianity being the most persecuted religion, she said: “I would really push back against that. In China you have a Christian minority. I’m not saying the state welcomes them with open arms but there is no comparison to what the Muslims experience in Xinjiang.

 “When people talk only about the Christians, sometimes it’s deliberate because they have an ideological agenda behind it. But as scholars and media we can’t take it for granted. We really have to be clear. We can’t say one group is more discriminated against than the other. What’s missing is a lot of comparison.”

Some would argue that there is something else missing: the word “practice”.

Shimon Cohen, senior adviser to the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and campaign director of Shechita UK, said FoRB was “initiated by Christians”. Admirable though it may be, he believes it is “unworkable and flawed” for not encompassing certain aspects religious elements, such as those practised by Jews and Muslims.

The issues there are particularly stark in Europe, Mr Cohen explained. “For example, Jews and Muslims don’t mechanically stun their animals prior to slaughter. Jews and Muslims, although very differently, circumcise their children.”

Many European countries, particularly in Scandinavia, have taken steps to outlaw such religious traditions, which present a real threat to these communities, Mr Cohen said. “We have long been campaigning to have the phraseology changed to freedom of religion and to practise religion and that’s what is key.

“This conference brings the issue into very sharp focus, the way to practise our faith as we define it and live as equal citizens in Europe.”

Just as important are the rights of those who seem themselves as non-religious. The national charity Humanists UK aims at advancing free thinking and promoting humanism “to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail”.

Richy Thompson, the charity’s director of public affairs and policy, said: “We very much welcome the UK’s hosting of the 2022 Ministerial, as well as its strong focus on freedom of religion or belief more generally.

“In many parts of the world, non-religious people are so severely persecuted that it is impossible for them to be open about their beliefs. It is therefore essential that all governments of goodwill stand up not just for freedom to have or practise a religion, but also to hold non-religious beliefs. We hope the Ministerial helps more countries to recognise this.”


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